Updated: Jul 21
25 May 2018
Written by Becky Parry
Viral meningitis is usually not life-threatening, which results in it being less spoken about than bacterial meningitis. Likewise, because Mollaret’s meningitis is a very rare type of viral meningitis, not much is known about the disease or the often debilitating impact it has on sufferers.
To raise awareness and understanding of viral meningitis, this month, Meningitis Now and Mollaret’s Meningitis Association have coordinated the British Viral Meningitis Awareness Week and American Mollaret’s Meningitis Awareness Day respectively. To celebrate these awareness events, we have put together 5 things that you probably didn’t know about viral meningitis.
1.Many different viruses can cause viral meningitis
Many different viruses can cause viral meningitis, including enteroviruses, herpes simplex, mumps and measles. Most people who are exposed to these viruses do not go on to develop meningitis, but from time to time, the virus will spread to the meninges and cause meningitis.
Vaccines are available to protect against some viruses that can cause meningitis, such as the combined measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and the Japanese encephalitis vaccine. However, most causes of viral meningitis are not vaccine-preventable. Good hygiene practises such as handwashing can also help prevent the spread of viruses that can cause meningitis.
2. Symptoms of viral meningitis are similar to bacterial meningitis
Initial symptoms of viral meningitis are very similar to the symptoms of bacterial meningitis, and include a fever, severe headache, sensitivity to light, loss of appetite, vomiting and lethargy. However, because viral meningitis is unlikely to cause septicaemia , a red/purple purpuric rash is very unlikely to be present. If you suspect the signs and symptoms of any types of meningitis, seek urgent medical attention.
3. Some people get reoccurring viral meningitis
Although it’s very rare, some people experience viral meningitis several times in their life time. This type of meningitis is called Mollaret’s meningitis, and it is characterised by repeated episodes of illness which last around 3-4 days. The more common symptoms of Mollaret’s meningitis are the same as viral meningitis generally. In some cases, symptoms can also include a rapid heartbeat, hallucinations and double vision.
Sufferers can be left with permanent disabilities, such as residual headaches, memory difficulties? , changes in sight, speech problems and abnormal reflexes. This can make it difficult for sufferers of Mollaret’s meningitis to stay in employment. With each reoccurrence of a Mollaret’s meningitis episode comes the risk of further disability. However, because the symptoms of Mollaret’s meningitis are similar to a migraine, many people go undiagnosed.
For more information on Mollaret’s meningitis, please see the Mollaret’s Meningitis Associations website.
4. There is no specific treatment for viral meningitis
Generally speaking, there is no treatment for most viruses that cause meningitis – antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. Instead, patients are encouraged to stay hydrated and take painkillers to help ease headaches. For some viruses, like Herpes simplex, anti-virals may be prescribed. Most people recover from viral meningitis without medical intervention within 5 days to 2 weeks, but for some people, the recovery process can take a lot longer.
5. It can take several months to recover, and some people experience lifelong after affects.
Viral meningitis can be life-changing. Although it is very rarely life-threatening and most patients recover without any permanent damage, it can sometimes take several months to recover, and some sufferers are left with a number of lifelong after-effects. These can include headaches, memory loss, depression, anxiety, hearing difficulties and exhaustion.
Alex Flatley, founder of CoMO member The Lion Heart Challenge, was diagnosed with viral meningitis in 2013 and fell into a coma for several days. A month later, Alex relapsed and had a grand mal seizure, which he did not wake up from for twenty-six hours. Viral meningitis has led to Alex experiencing memory loss and has taken away his sense of smell. You can read more about Alex’s story here.
Viral meningitis can affect anyone of any age. Although viral meningitis is not normally life-threatening, it is vital that you seek urgent medical attention if you suspect the signs and symptoms of any type of meningitis.
If you have been affected by viral meningitis and live in the UK, you can contact Meningitis Now’s helpline by calling 0808 801 0388. If you would like support but live outside of the UK please contact us.
If you have been affected by Mollaret’s meningitis, think you have Mollaret’s meningitis, or know someone who has, you can join the Mollaret’s Meningitis Association’s Online Support Group here.
Becky works at CoMO's Head Office in the UK and coordinates CoMO's communications and events. She studied Philosophy at the University of Sussex and has a Masters in Human Rights. Becky has a background in international development and has worked for a variety of charitable organisations throughout her career.