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Paediatr Child Health. 1998 Nov-Dec; 3(6): 437.
PMCID: PMC2851313

Viral meningitis

Your child was recently diagnosed with viral meningitis. This infection causes swelling of the lining of the brain. Your child may have symptoms such as fever, headache, neck pain or stiffness, pain when looking at bright lights, nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, tiredness and sleepiness. The virus may also infect other parts of the body and cause symptoms such as skin rash, runny nose, sore throat, ear ache, cough, difficulty breathing and diarrhea. Let your doctor know if your child has any of these symptoms.

To diagnose viral meningitis, the doctor performs a lumbar puncture or ‘spinal tap’ to obtain some of the fluid that normally surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Laboratory tests on this fluid help the doctor decide whether the infection is caused by a virus or other germ such as bacteria. Most cases of viral meningitis are not very serious. Children recover in about one or two weeks. However, it is very important to recognize meningitis caused by bacteria because it is more serious but can be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotic treatment is not effective against viral meningitis.

If your child has mild symptoms from viral meningitis, and is doing well at home, the doctor will not admit him or her to hospital. However, if your child is quite sick from the viral infection (especially young infants), the doctor may hospitalize your child temporarily for further care until he or she is better.

Occasionally, a doctor is unable to distinguish viral and bacterial meningitis on the basis of the test results. This may be because your child was taking an oral antibiotic before the spinal tap was completed. An antibiotic does not prevent the meningitis from happening but can make the spinal fluid results confusing. Some viral infections can also give spinal fluid results that falsely resemble bacterial meningitis. In that case, your doctor may decide to hospitalize your child and start intravenous antibiotic(s) while waiting for other test results. If the diagnosis of viral meningitis becomes apparent in the next several days, the antibiotic(s) will be stopped. Sometimes this involves repeating the spinal tap in one or two days.

In Canada viral meningitis occurs most commonly during the summer when the two most common viruses that cause meningitis, coxsackievirus and echovirus, are in the community. These viruses frequently infect many children and adults at the same time, but few will actually develop viral meningitis. The meningitis resolved its own, usually without any complications. The viruses spread easily from one person to another. The viruses are carried in the stool or feces, making it very important for all family members to wash their hands with soap and water after using the washroom (or changing dirty diapers), and before food preparation and eating to prevent spread of the virus. Viral meningitis may also occur at other seasons during the year but may be caused by other types of viruses. Your doctor can explain more about the type of viral infection that your child has.


This information should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your physician. There may be variations in treatment that your physician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.

This information may be reproduced without permission and shared with patients and their families. (Reviewed by the Canadian Paediatric Society Board of Directors)

Canadian Paediatric Society, 2204 Walkley Road, Suite 100, Ottawa, Ontario K1G 4G8 telephone 613-526-9397, fax 613-526-3332,

Articles from Paediatrics & Child Health are provided here courtesy of Pulsus Group