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Aseptic meningitis

Aseptic meningitis
Classification & external resources
The image above shows the location and the layers of the meninges surrounding the brain
ICD-10 G03. Nonpyogenic meningitis
ICD-9 322.0 Nonpyogenic meningitis
DiseasesDB 945
eMedicine NEURO/697 

Aseptic meningitis is a condition in which the layers lining of the brain, or meninges, become inflamed and a pyogenic bacterial source is not to blame. Meningitis is diagnosed on a history of characteristic symptoms and certain examination findings (e.g. Kernig's sign). Investigations should show an increase in the number of leukocytes present in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), obtained via lumbar puncture, (normal being fewer than five visible per microscopic high power field).

The term aseptic is frequently a misnomer, implying a lack of infection. On the contrary, many cases of aseptic meningitis represent infection with viruses or mycobacteria that cannot be detected with routine methods. While the advent of polymerase chain reaction has increased the ability of clinicians to detect viruses such as enterovirus, cytomegalovirus, and herpes virus in the CSF, many viruses can still escape detection. Additionally, mycobacteria frequently require special stains and culture methods that make their detection difficult. When CSF findings are consistent with meningitis, and microbiologic testing is unrevealing, clinicians typically assign the diagnosis of aseptic meningitis—making it a relative diagnosis of exclusion.

Aseptic meningitis can result from non-infectious causes; it is a relatively infrequent side effect of medications, and can be an early finding in autoimmune disease.



There is no formal classification system. It is usually by the causative organism if identified.

Symptoms and Signs

These are varied, depending on the causative organism. There are usually non-specific constitutional symptoms lasting for hours or days. These are then followed by meningitis, characterised by headache, stiff neck, fever, photophobia, drowsiness, and myalgia. A rash may be present, which could suggest a particular virus - for example, varicella zoster. However, a non-blanching purpuric rash is not associated with meningitis and suggests systemic bacterial infection.


Seizures, encephalitis and cognitive problems can develop, although rarely.


The cause can be infectious or non-infectious.








Systemic Diseases



Usually the history and examination will arouse suspicion. Confirmation is mainly through CSF findings:

Viruses may be cultured from swabs of other areas, such as the throat.

Blood tests are rarely helpful in establishing the diagnosis (but may be of use to establish baseline chemistry). Imaging is useful in excluding other diagnoses, or identifying other features of infection by an organsim - for example, a chest X-ray may be useful if tuberculosis is suspected.


Invasion into or past the meninges by a pathogen can set up a local inflammatory response. The clinical signs are due to this meningeal irritation - for example, Kernig's sign is due to pain produced by stretching of the inflamed meninges.



If the causative organism has been identified and has a specific therapy, this should be started.


Even though true aseptic meningitis cannot be caused by pyogenic bacteria, broad-spectrum antibiotic cover should be started as the consequences of misdiagnosing a bacterial meningitis are dire, and relatively easily avoided. For non-pyogenic bacteria, local sensitivities should be taken into account, but generally broad-spectrum is best. Some bacteria are normally sensitive to certain drugs - for example, rifampicin is good for Brucella.


HSV, varicella and CMV have a specific antiviral therapy; most other viruses do not. For HSV the treatment of choice is acyclovir[1]


Amphotericin B and fluconazole are the best antifungals in most situations.


This will be the majority of the treatment. Fluids, analgesia and antiemetics should cover most cases. Antipyretics should be used judiciously - fever can be a natural response. Steroids are not recommended unless raised intracranial pressure occurs. Phenytoin and other anticonvulsants can be used is seizures occur, but prophylaxis is not recommended.


In immunocompetent individuals, the disease is usually mild and self-limiting. Full recovery 5-14 days afterwards is normal.


Vaccines are available for some organisms that cause aseptic meningitis. Good infection control in hospital, as ever, is recommended. If the causative organism is contagious, steps may need to be taken to isolate the individual and protect the community.


Aspetic meningitis is relatively common, with an incidence of around 10/100,000. The male:female ratio is around 1:1.


  1. ^ Tyler Kl. Herpes simplex virus infections of the central nervous system: encephalitis and meningitis, including Mollaret's. Herpes. 2004 Jun;11 Suppl 2:57A-64A.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Aseptic_meningitis". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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