Viral meningitis is one component of a syndrome known as aseptic meningitis. The aseptic meningitis syndrome is now usually defined as meningitis with normal CSF glucose levels, normal or elevated protein levels, and elevated cell count with a majority of the cells being lymphocytes. A less common definition is nonbacterial meningitis; a definition no longer used is meningitis with a negative bacterial culture. The CSF findings of aseptic meningitis may be caused by a wide variety of agents, including different viruses, mycobacteria, Listeria, syphilis, Leptospira, Toxoplasma, fungi, meningeal carcinomatosis, and meningeal reaction to nearby inflammatory or destructive processes or to some medications in a few patients. However, viral meningitis is the most common and typical of the conditions that produce this syndrome. The commonest virus group associated with meningitis is enterovirus, which includes ECHO (enteric cytopathic human orphan) virus and coxsackievirus and comprises 50%-80% of viral meningitis patients; the second most common (10%-20%) is mumps. Other viruses include herpes simplex, arbovirus group, herpes zoster-varicella, and lymphocytic choriomeningitis. Although not usually listed, human immunodeficiency virus 1 (HIV-1) (or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome [AIDS]) may be, or may become, one of the most frequent etiologies. There are several reasons for describing the aseptic meningitis syndrome and specifically mentioning viral meningitis. First, it is useful to know what etiologies to expect with this pattern of CSF results. Second, this pattern is not specific for viral etiology. Third, a significant number of patients infected by many of these etiologies do not present with textbook aseptic meningitis findings. This is most true for lymphocytes versus neutrophils as the dominating cell in early enterovirus, mumps, and arbovirus infections. Reports estimate that 20%-75% of patients with viral meningitis have neutrophil predominance in the first CSF specimen obtained. For example, one investigator found that about 50% of enteroviral meningitis patients had more than 10% neutrophils on the first CSF specimen, and about 25% had neutrophils predominating; about 66% had normal protein levels; and about 10% had decreased glucose. Most reports indicate that repeat lumbar puncture in 8-12 hours frequently shows change from neutrophil to lymphocyte predominance, with conversion of the remainder taking place in 24-48 hours. In enterovirus, mumps, herpes simplex, and lymphocytic choriomeningitis, initial CSF glucose is sometimes mildly decreased rather than the expected normal value.

Differential diagnosis of aseptic meningitis syndrome etiologies generally involves differentiating virus etiology from mycobacterial and cryptococcal infection. CSF culture can be done for all the usual virus possibilities, but viral specimens usually must be sent to a reference laboratory, and the results are not available for several days or even longer. It has been recommended that CSF specimens either be processed in less than 24 hours or be frozen at – 70°C to preserve infectivity. Many viruses lose infectivity when frozen at the usual temperature of – 20°C. Serologic tests are also available but require acute and convalescent serum specimens and thus take even longer than culture. As noted there, herpes simplex type 1 has a predilection for involvement of the temporal lobe of the brain. Cryptococcus and mycobacterial tests have been discussed earlier in this chapter. CSF lactate (lactic acid) has been advocated to separate viral from nonviral etiology but, as discussed earlier, is not always helpful and thus is still somewhat controversial.