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Viral meningitis

Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis and, although rarely life-threatening, it can make people very unwell.

Many people who have experienced viral meningitis feel that they are dismissed as having the ‘milder’ form of meningitis and that very little is understood about the recovery and after-effects. In response we have recently carried out a survey, with over 450 sufferers responding. The results show the real impact viral meningitis can have. 

Viral survey results

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The results of our survey are helping us work towards raising the profile of the disease and inform health professionals, schools, employers, family and friends of the potential long term difficulties that sufferers can face. 

Read about Viral meningitis in more detail on our facts page

Key facts about viral meningitis

  • Many thousands of cases occur each year, mostly affecting babies and toddlers
  • Although most people will make a full recovery, some are left with serious and debilitating meningitis after-effects.
  • Viral meningitis after-effects can include headaches, exhaustion and memory loss.
  • The recovery process from viral meningitis can be very slow, the majority of sufferers no longer experience after-effects 12 months after their illness.
  • The symptoms of viral meningitis can be very similar to those of bacterial meningitis, so it is essential to seek urgent medical help if concerned. 

Viral meningitis causesconcerned adults

Many different viruses can cause meningitis; the most common are a group called enteroviruses. These viruses live in the intestines and can commonly cause colds, sore throats, stomach upsets and diarrhoea. Only rarely do these viruses spread through the body to the meninges and cause meningitis.

There are many other viruses that can cause meningitis. The mumps virus was the most common known cause of viral meningitis in young children under five years of age before the introduction of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine

The herpes simplex virus can also cause meningitis.

Although extremely rare, some viruses can cause recurring meningitis. This is known as Mollaret’s meningitis.

Because many different viruses can cause meningitis, the way in which the virus is spread will depend on its type. For example some viruses can be passed from person to person by coughing, sneezing and on unwashed hands.

Can viral meningitis be prevented?

Some types of viral meningitis can be prevented with vaccination. A routine vaccination (MMR) is available as part of the Childhood Immunisation Programme to prevent meningitis caused by mumps and measles. Practising good hygiene, such as washing hands after going to the toilet, will help to prevent the spread of viruses that are passed in faeces.

Who gets viral meningitis and why?

  • Viral meningitis can affect any age group, but is more common in babies and children.
  • Babies and young children are more at risk because their body’s defences are not fully developed. If the virus invades the body, their immune system cannot provide resistance to fight off infection.
  • While more babies and young children get the disease our survey results show that the long term impact seems to be greatest amongst adults.

How is viral meningitis treated?

Antibiotics are not effective against viruses although, in some instances, antibiotics may be started on admission to hospital because the cause of meningitis is not known. For more information on this, visit our section on meningitis treatment

Once viral meningitis has been diagnosed , there is no specific treatment for most cases, but patients need to be hydrated with fluids, given painkillers and allowed to rest in order to make as complete a recovery as possible. An exception to this, if herpes simplex is identified as the cause, treatment is possible with the antiviral drug Aciclovir.

After viral meningitis

The majority of people who get viral meningitis will make a good recovery with no long lasting after-effects. However a number of people will be left with a variety of serious problems which can result in permanent disability.

The after-effects of meningitis usually happen because of damage to various areas of the brain. While the after-effects of viral meningitis are not usually as severe as those of bacterial meningitis, they can still be long-lasting.

Our survey showed:

After-effects were experienced by 97% of respondents including:

  • Exhaustion
  • Headaches
  • Memory loss
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dizziness/ balance problems
  • Hearing difficulties

Because viral meningitis is very rarely life-threatening, many sufferers feel that their illness is taken less seriously, with over half all respondents say that viral meningitis had caused them difficulty at work, or in education and many felt that family, friends and health professionals or employers did not understand the impact of viral meningitis.

Recovery from viral meningitis can be very slow, but is usually complete. Our survey showed that 90% of people were no longer experiencing after-effects six to 12 months after the illness, this rose to 93% one year after. However this still means that seven per cent were living with after-effects more than one year after the illness.

Need more information on viral meningitis?

doc_pdf.png Download our Viral Meningitis fact sheet

doc_pdf.png Download our Guide for Employers 

pdf icon Download our Information sheet for Health Professionals

Or, if you have a question, you can speak to experienced staff on our freephone helpline, available 24-hours a day: 0808 80 10 388, or you can email us at [email protected] and we will come back to you as soon as we can. 

Been affected by viral meningitis?

We are here to support anyone affected by meningitis. We have a range of free support services, available for life.

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Viral meningitis stories

Read stories from people affected by viral meningitis and see how Meningitis Now has helped.


Read Tamily's story

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The Information Standard