Health Topics

Viral Encephalitis & Meningitis

Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain. Meningitis is an illness that causes swelling in the tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord. Both can be caused by an infection with bacteria or viruses. 

Viral encephalitis and meningitis:

  • are the more common type of encephalitis and meningitis
  • can be caused by several types of viruses
  • rarely cause death in people who are otherwise healthy

Viral encephalitis and meningitis are sometimes confused with a more serious infection called meningococcal disease.  Bacterial encephalitis and meningitis is caused by bacteria and can lead to brain damage and death.  

Some of the viruses that cause encephalitis and meningitis is contagious. The way the infection is transmitted and how long it is contagious varies depending on the type of virus. The infection may spread from person to person:

  • Through feces, such as changing a diaper or using the toilet and not properly washing hands afterwards
  • Through direct contact with respiratory secretions  such as saliva, sputum or nasal mucus from a person with the infection
  • By being in contact with an infected person who is coughing or sneezing
  • By touching your face or mouth after you touch an object that an infected person touched
  • By shaking an infected person’s hand
  • Through mosquito bites (e.g., West Nile virus)

Symptoms can develop over several hours or over one or two days.

Common symptoms of viral encephalitis and meningitis are:

  • Fever
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Avoiding bright lights
  • Confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sleepiness or trouble waking up
  • Rash

For babies, symptoms of viral encephalitis and meningitis include:

  • Fever
  • Constant crying
  • Poor appetite
  • Difficulty waking up

Symptoms seldom last more than 10 days.  Most people recover completely.

Talk to your doctor right away if you think you or your child has viral encephalitis or meningitis.

There is no specific treatment for viral encephalitis and meningitis.  Most people with viral encephalitis and meningitis get better in about two weeks, without treatment. Your doctor may recommend medicine to make you feel more comfortable.

Here are some tips for preventing viral encephalitis and meningitis:

  • Wash your hands well and often using soap and water or a hand rub with at least 70 - 90 % alcohol.  You should be especially careful to wash well after using the bathroom, changing babies’ diapers, before eating and before preparing food.
  • Avoid sharing drinks and eating and drinking utensils such as cups, straws or water bottles.
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your sleeve; throw away the tissue right after use and wash your hands.
  • Protect yourself from mosquitoes by wearing light coloured clothing that covers your skin, staying away from areas where mosquitoes are active and using insect repellent.