A retrospective analysis of all patients admitted with the diagnostic codes of aseptic or viral meningitis was performed at two institutions over 3 years. Forty-one patients with cerebrospinal fluid confirmation of aseptic meningitis (increased protein; increased white count; negative gram stain; and negative fungal, tuberculosis, and bacterial cultures) were analyzed.
All the patients had headache, which was typically severe and bilateral in 39 of the 41 patients. The headache was of abrupt onset or the worst of the patient's life in 24 of the patients. The quality of the headache, when described, was usually throbbing (11 of 14). Nineteen patients had prodromal symptoms, including malaise, myalgia, gastrointestinal symptoms, and urinary tract infections. All had associated symptoms, including nausea (25), vomiting (23), photophobia (18), stiff neck (25), and back pain (11). Thirty patients were febrile. Lumbar puncture was performed for headacheand fever unexplained by systemic illness in 30 patients, meningeal signs in 15, headache of abrupt onset or the worst headache ever in 24, neurologic signs or symptoms in 12, and for other reasons in 2. Computerized tomography, when performed, was negative in all cases. Focal neurologic findings were present in 5 patients, a decreased level of consciousness in 6, and papilledema in 1.
A severe headache that worsens, is abrupt in onset, or is the worst of the patient's life could be due to aseptic meningitis, bacterial meningitis, or a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Although not universally present, meningeal signs, fever, and neurologic signs or symptoms should alert one to a possible central nervous system infection.