Is viral meningitis contagious if a family member, not in the household has contracted it, and your child has come into contact with them?
Dear “Worried Mother”,
Aseptic or Viral Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the spinal cord caused by a virus. The viruses that are common offenders include; Enteroviruses, Coxsackievirus, Echovirus, and Mumps virus. (1) Less likely causes include Arbovirus, Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis virus, Herpes Simplex Virus, Chlamydia, Epstein-Barr virus and Cytomegalovirus. Viral meningitis is typically self limiting and usually resolves within 3 to 14 days. It is not as serious as Bacterial Meningitis which can be life threatening and contagious.
If a child is exposed to someone with Viral Meningitis, it is possible that they will contract the virus that caused the meningitis. It does not mean that they will develop Meningitis. The development of Meningitis depends upon the condition of the host(the person who contracts the virus). If a child has a suppressed immune system, congenital defect of the spinal cord, an absent or non-functioning spleen, is in a debilitated state or is suffering from malnutrition he would be more at risk for developing meningitis
The symptoms of Meningitis include fever, headache, vomiting and stiff neck. In some cases irritability, drowsiness and lethargy may occur. Typically Viral Meningitis does not progress as rapidly as Bacterial Meningitis. Viral Meningitis is less severe than Bacterial Meningitis. (1) The diagnosis of Meningitis is made through the examination of the cerebral spinal fluid which is obtained via a procedure called a “Spinal Tap”.
The treatment for Viral Meningitis is symptomatic, which means only the symptoms are treated. Since the disease is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not treat the condition. Instead a person’s body fights the disease. Many times antibiotics are given to a child with symptoms of meningitis until the results of the spinal tap are available. (2) If the results of the spinal tap reveal that a child has Viral Meningitis the antibiotics are usually discontinued as long as the child does not have a bacterial infection somewhere else in their body.
Close contacts of patients with Bacterial Meningitis, such as Meningococcal Meningitis are at risk for contracting the disease. Outbreaks of Bacterial Meningitis have occurred in child care centers, schools, colleges, and military recruit camps. ( 3) This is not the case for Aseptic or Viral Meningitis. Even though Viral Meningitis is not contagious it is prudent to inform your child’s doctor if your child was a close contact of anyone with Meningitis. In some cases the cause of a patient’s meningitis is not immediately known and precautions are taken until the results of the spinal tap are available. The spinal tap results can take a few days to obtain.
If it turns out that the meningitis was due to a virus, no further precautions will need to be taken. On the other hand if the Meningitis turns out to be bacterial in origin certain measures need to be followed. These include close observation for symptoms and immediate medical attention for contacts that develop a fever. Close contacts with patients with Bacterial Meningitis should receive prophylaxis or medication to prevent them from contracting the disease.
High risk “Close Contacts” include household contacts(especially small children), childcare or nursery school contacts, a person who had direct contact with the Patient’s secretions (kissing, sharing toothbrushes or eating utensils), someone who provided mouth to mouth resuscitation, or a person who frequently eats or sleeps in the same dwelling. Low risk contacts include people who did not have contact with respiratory secretions, schoolmates, co-workers, and indirect contacts (a child who had contact with one of the sick person's high risk contacts). (3) Basically your child’s risk is determined by the type of contact they had with the infected person. Your doctor will be able to tell you if your child is at risk.
In regards to your child’ risk for contracting Meningitis, as long as your child is healthy with no underlying medical conditions he should not be at risk for contracting Viral Meningitis from his relative. He may however be at risk for developing the virus that caused the disease. Even if your relative turned out to have Bacterial Meningitis, your child may not be at risk depending upon the type of interaction your family had with the relative. If there was no exchange of respiratory secretions, if the relative did not eat and sleep at your house and if your son did not have contact with another relative who was a high risk contact he would not be considered as high risk. If your relative turns out to have Bacterial Meningitis, you should discuss the type of contact your family had with your Family Doctor.
(1) Betz C, Hunsberger M, Wright S. Family-Centered Nursing Care of Children. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA:W.B.Saunders Company. 1994: 1798-1799.
(2)American Academy of Pediatrics. Pneumococcal Infections. In: Peter G, ed. 1997. Red Book: Report of the Committee on Infectious Disease. 24th ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; 1997:414. (3)American Academy of Pediatrics. Meningococcal Infections. In: Peter G, ed. 1997. Red Book: Report of the Committee on Infectious Disease. 24th ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; 1997:Redbook 357-360.
Lisa-ann Kelly R.N., P.N.P.,C.
Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
Advice About Pediatric Infectious Diseases