Viral Meningitis: What You Need to Know


Local health officials are reporting a recent outbreak of viral meningitis in Washoe County. Learn the symptoms and how to prevent this common seasonal illness.

Viral meningitis sounds scary, but it’s generally less serious than bacterial meningitis. With a high amount of cases reported recently in the region, we asked Alison Lynch, MD, to explain the differences between the two and how to protect yourself and your family.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Some cases of meningitis improve without treatment in a few weeks. Others can be life-threatening and require emergency antibiotic treatment.

What is the difference between viral and bacterial meningitis?

It’s important to distinguish between viral and bacterial meningitis. Viral meningitis is a common seasonal illness. When the underlying cause is a virus, rather than a bacteria, the condition is usually far less severe and much easier to treat. Fortunately, thanks to vaccines, bacterial meningitis is very rare in the U.S.


What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms can include headaches, fever and a stiff neck. Some people may experience photophobia (difficulty with bright light), nausea and vomiting. For infants and small children, there might be a rash, poor feeding and inability to console the child.

How is meningitis spread?

Meningitis is oftentimes spread in close quarters. We observe meningitis outbreaks most commonly in dorms, schools and day care facilities.

How do you prevent meningitis?

For preventing meningitis, precautions are similar to avoiding colds and flu.

I tell my patients to cover their mouth when coughing and to practice good hand washing. If you are feeling ill, it is thoughtful to stay away from others who are are susceptible, especially small children, pregnant woman, the elderly and those who are immune compromised.

Vaccines are very successful in the prevention of bacterial meningitis. All 11-to-12-year-olds should be vaccinated with a meningococcal conjugate vaccine.  A booster dose is recommended at age 16 years. Teens and young adults (age 16-23 years) may also be vaccinated with a serogroup B meningococcal vaccine. The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine is recommended for all infants and children younger than 2-years-old, a well as adults age 65 and older.

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