Herpes Can Cause Meningitis and Encephalitis

Some herpes viruses can cause meningitis and encephalitis. Meningitis is the inflammation of the meninges, which are the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and encephalitis is inflammation of the brain itself, which is much more serious condition.

HSV encephalitis is mainly caused by HSV-1, whereas meningitis is more often caused by HSV-2. Herpes viruses have been linked to Recurrent Lymphocytic Meningitis (Mollaret’s meningitis), which is characterized by sudden attacks of meningitis symptoms that last for 2-7 days and are separated by symptom-free (latent) intervals lasting for weeks, months or years.

Meningitis and encephalitis can affect people at any age, and babies can get either of these conditions if they contract herpes from their mother during childbirth. Infants can also contract herpes from kisses from visiting family, friends and neighbors, meaning they can potentially contract deadly cases of meningitis or encephalitis. 

When both of these conditions occur simultaneously it is called meningoencephalitis.

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Meningoencephalitis can cause the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Fever
  • Light sensitivity
  • Seizures
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Difficulty thinking clearly or confusion
  • Change or changes in personality
  • Unconsciousness

Diagnosing either or both of these infections can include a spinal tap/lumbar puncture to sample spinal fluid, monitoring the brain via MRI or CT scans, and EEG tests to measure and monitor brain waves. Infants’ blood or spinal fluid may be tested.

Cases of meningitis and encephalitis can be caused by a number of bacteria, viruses or fungi, but instances of viral meningitis or encephalitis that results from HSV can be bypassed by avoiding herpes infections.

Preventing HSV infections include:

  • Abstinence or only having sex with one partner who has been tested and does not have the virus.
  • Using condoms, which can help reduce risk–but not necessarily prevent–herpes infection.
  • Do not kiss or share drinks, eating utensils or chap-stick with individuals who have active cold sores (or with anyone who has not been tested for HSV since it can be asymptomatic).
  • Cesarean section (C-section) deliveries can help prevent newborns from getting HSV from mothers who have genital herpes.

Medically Reviewed by on October 3, 2018 - Written by STDcheck Editorial Team.

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