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Viral Meningitis in Children


What is viral meningitis?

Viral meningitis is an infection of the meninges (the covering of the brain and spinal cord). Children with meningitis often have sudden symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness. Children may also have nausea, vomiting, and a worse headache when in a lighted area. Sometimes infants with meningitis also have a bulging fontanelle (soft spot), irritable cry, and seizures. Meningitis can resemble a bad case of the flu.

What causes viral meningitis?

Many different viruses can cause meningitis. Viruses are spread by coming in contact with infected fluids or secretions. They can be on surfaces such as toys, tables, doorknobs, or telephones. A common way to "catch" a virus is to touch an infected person or item and then rub your eyes or nose. Viruses can also enter the body through foods, drinks, or insect or animal bites. Viruses can also be inhaled from the air after someone coughs or sneezes.

How is it diagnosed?

It is very important to determine that it is a virus and not a bacteria that is causing the meningitis. Children with viral meningitis usually get better without special treatment. Bacterial meningitis can be life-threatening and must be treated in the hospital. The only way to diagnose meningitis is to get a small sample of spinal fluid and test it. This is done with a spinal tap (also known as a lumbar puncture).

Spinal Tap:

  • After your child’s back has been numbed, a small needle is inserted in the spinal canal to collect a sample of spinal fluid. The lab can look at the spinal fluid and tell if the meningitis is more likely to be viral or bacterial.
  • This procedure is very safe because it is done below the end of the spinal cord, so there is no risk of paralysis. Your child may have a headache after the procedure. Your child’s body will replace the spinal fluid removed within hours.

Other tests:

  • Your child may also have blood tests, a CT scan, or an MRI to help find the cause of your child’s illness.

How is it treated?

Children with most types of viral meningitis can be treated at home. There is no medicine your child can take to cure viral meningitis. (Antibiotics have no effect on viruses. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics if not sure whether the meningitis is caused by bacteria or a virus.) Your child will eventually get better on his or her own. You can help your child at home by following these home care instructions:

  • Fluids

    Encourage your child to drink fluids. This will help avoid dehydration.

  • Pain Control

    Your child may need acetaminophen or ibuprofen for his or her headache and body aches. Check with your healthcare provider before you give any medicine that contains aspirin or salicylates to a child or teen. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto Bismol. Children and teens who take aspirin are at risk for a serious illness called Reye's syndrome. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days.

  • Rest

    Your child may feel better if he or she lies down in a quiet place with dim lighting.

How long will the effects last?

Children with viral meningitis usually recover without any problems. Since different viruses can cause the illness, the length of time it takes a child to feel better can vary from 2 days to 2 weeks. Headaches may last from 1 to 2 weeks. You should notice a gradual improvement.

How can I help prevent it from spreading?

The virus causing the meningitis can be passed from person to person. The length of time your child will be contagious can be anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks, depending on the virus. Your doctor will let you know when your child is no longer contagious and can return to normal activities.

To reduce the chance of spreading the virus to another person:

  • Wash your child's hands frequently.
  • Wash your hands often and make sure anyone who has contact with your child does the same.
  • Do not share cups or utensils.
  • Avoid contact with saliva, such as by kissing a child.

There is no vaccine for viral meningitis. There are vaccines to prevent bacterial meningitis.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call IMMEDIATELY if:

  • You are unable to awaken your child.
  • The headache or neck pain cannot be controlled after 2 hours of ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
  • Purple or blood-colored spots or dots occur on the skin.
  • Your child develops unsteady walking, slurred speech, or acts confused.
  • Your child has a seizure.
  • Your child starts to act very sick.
  • You or someone who has had contact with your child develops symptoms of meningitis.

Call within 24 hours if:

  • Your child is vomiting or refusing to drink.
  • You have other questions or concerns.

Written by the Section of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, The Children's Hospital, Denver.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-11
Last reviewed: 2010-11-29

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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