Cases of viral meningitis on the rise; good hygiene is key to halting its spread

December 05, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State health care professionals report a slightly higher than usual number of viral meningitis cases this semester on the University Park campus. Viral meningitis, which is less serious than bacterial meningitis, may improve without treatment and can often be mistaken for the flu in its initial stages. The only way to tell the difference between viral and bacterial meningitis in the early stages is by medical evaluation and testing. 

Penn State’s University Health Services is working closely with colleagues at Mount Nittany Medical Center and the Pennsylvania Department of Health on this issue and urge students to practice good hygiene to avoid many types of illnesses, including viral meningitis and the flu.

Viral meningitis, also referred to as aseptic meningitis, is most frequently caused by a group of viruses known as enteroviruses. Other viruses that also may cause meningitis include influenza (flu), herpes, measles and arboviruses, which are spread by insects and mosquitoes.

Transmission of enteroviruses is often through fecal contamination and respiratory secretions.  Improper hand washing after using the toilet or after contact with respiratory secretions is a common way for these infections to spread.

Early signs and symptoms of viral meningitis are similar to bacterial meningitis and should not be ignored. Bacterial meningitis is a very serious illness that can be fatal and requires prompt antibiotic treatment.

Symptoms of viral meningitis frequently last for 7 to 10 days, and include:
— Fever
— Severe headache
— Stiff neck
— Sensitivity to bright light
— Sleepiness or trouble waking up
— Nausea, vomiting
— Lack of appetite

Antibiotics are not effective against the viruses causing viral meningitis. Typically there is no specific treatment for this illness. However, treatment measures may be dependent on the specific virus involved. Most people will recover within 7 to 10 days without medical intervention.

No vaccine is available for the common causes of viral meningitis.  Preventing the spread of viral infections is the most fundamental way to prevent viral meningitis.  Some simple, yet very effective, strategies for preventing the spread of infections are:

1. Wash your hands often, especially after changing diapers, using the toilet, coughing or blowing your nose.

2. Eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep.

3. Clean high-use surfaces, such as sinks, door knobs, counters, keyboards, etc. with disinfectants frequently.

4. If you are ill, distance yourself from others so that you don’t spread germs.

5. Be sure to cover all coughs and sneezes, using a disposable tissue or your elbow.

6. Do not share eating utensils, drinking glasses, cigarettes, or anything that has saliva.

7. If you haven’t already, get your flu vaccine.

For additional information about meningitis, visit to the CDC at http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/index.html

Last Updated December 05, 2014