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Viral Meningitis in Children

Meningitis is an infection or inflammation of the membrane and fluid around the brain and spinal cord. Viral meningitis is caused by a virus. It may start as another illness, such as stomach flu. It most often occurs in children under 5 years of age. It is not the same as bacterial meningitis, which is a serious illness caused by bacteria. Bacterial meningitis needs to be treated with antibiotics right away. Viral meningitis is often mild. It may go away with no treatment.


Symptoms of meningitis

Viral meningitis is not an emergency. But the symptomsare often the same as bacterial meningitis. You won’t know which one your child has. Seek medical care immediately if your child has any of these symptoms:

  • Fever over 100.5°F (38.01°C) (in a baby less than 2 months of age)

  • Severe headache that doesn’t go away

  • Stiff neck (arching back or neck in infants)

  • Nausea or vomiting with headache

  • Sleepiness; difficulty waking up

  • Irritability; dislike of being handled

  • Bruise-like rash or splotchy skin

  • Sensitivity to light

  • No appetite

Note: If a newborn or infant is irritable, very sleepy, or eats poorly, have the child checked by a doctor right away, even if there is no fever.

Diagnosing meningitis

Tests are done to diagnose meningitis. The tests can show if it is bacterial or viral. The tests include:

  • Spinal tap. A sample of spinal fluid is taken from the spinal canal located in the lower back. It is checked for signs of bacteria or viruses. This is the definitive test for meningitis.

  • Imaging tests. These may include a computed tomography (CT) scan or brain magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.. These tests look for areas of swelling and inflammation.

Treating viral meningitis

Viral meningitis often goes away on its own in about 10 days. There are some viruses that should be treated with antiviral medication. Your doctor may advise you to give your child certain medications. These are to help keep your child more comfortable. When your child has recovered, you may need to take him or her to the doctor. This is to check for problems with vision and hearing. Movement and mental function will be checked as well.


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