Infection with both herpes simplex viruses and other herpes viruses can lead to meningitis. This condition causes swelling of the meninges, which are the coverings of the brain and spinal cord. Although not the most common manifestation of these infections, viral meningitis caused by herpes viruses can be a severe condition.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), viral meningitis is the leading cause of meningitis. In general, viral meningitis--including that caused by herpes viruses--causes less severe symptoms and is less dangerous than that caused by bacteria.
Infection with three different herpes viruses can lead to meningitis. These include: herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2), the virus responsible for most cases of genital herpes; varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which causes chickenpox and shingles; and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Because herpes viruses can become latent and not cause symptoms for a long time, people may develop herpes meningitis at some point long after infection with a herpes virus. According to the Directors of Health Promotion and Education (DHPE), it is sometimes impossible to identify which virus is causing meningitis symptoms.
Viruses causing meningitis lead to a common group of symptoms. Moreover, the CDC reports that the symptoms of viral and bacterial meningitis are similar, so treatment should be sought quickly. The CDC reports the following symptoms: infants have a fever, are irritable, do not want to eat and are difficult to wake up; while children and adults may experience a high fever, strong headache, stiff neck, light sensitivity, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, as well as appetite loss.
Meningitis is not contagious, but the viruses that cause it may be. HSV-2 is spread mostly through close contact or the use of shared articles like towels and can be spread even the absence of an outbreak. VZV is only infectious during an outbreak and only to people who have never had chicken pox. Most people have been exposed to Epstein-Barr by adulthood and cannot be infected again.
As with many other viral conditions, no specific treatment exists that can target herpes viral meningitis specifically. According to Washtenaw County Public Health, doctors generally recommend rest, fluid intake and the administration of fever reducer and painkillers.