Meningitis is an infection of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. There are different types of meningitis, but the most common are viral. Viral meningitis is usually mild and clears up on its own. Bacterial meningitis such as meningococcal, on the other hand, can be severe, even fatal. Of those who contract the disease, 13 percent die. The CDC says that 20 percent of those who survive suffer serious long-term and irreversible medical effects such as deafness, neurological disorders and loss of limbs.
Although meningitis can be treated successfully with antibiotics, the disease spreads rapidly and is often mistaken for the flu in the early stages because symptoms can be similar. They include severe headache, stiff neck, confusion or difficulty concentrating, vomiting, seizures, sensitivity to light, sleepiness and in some instances a skin rash. If you think you may have meningitis see a doctor immediately. Even a few hours' delay can be deadly.
'It's often hard to tell the difference between the flu and meningitis," says Dr. Jeanne M. Rademacher, a pediatrician at East Jefferson General Hospital (EJGH). 'True neck stiffness, not being able to touch your chin to your chest; photophobia, or extreme light sensitivity; and no cough or cold symptoms are indicators it might be meningitis."
'Time of the year is also important. It's more likely it may be meningitis if you're having these symptoms and it's not during flu season. Vomiting may also be associated with meningitis, but is not usually associated with influenza."
Meningococcal meningitis is common among young people in part because of close living quarters, such as boarding schools and dormitories. The disease is spread through contact with mucus or saliva through sneezing, coughing, kissing or sharing personal items such as eating utensils, cigarettes, razors or toothbrushes.
'[Students] drink after one another. They have roommates," says Cathy Lopez, a registered nurse and supervisor of Infection Control at EJGH. 'People who have close contact with one another are the most likely to contract bacterial meningitis."
The CDC recommends all children ages 11 to 18 and all college freshmen get vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis. The vaccine is safe and very effective. Rebecca Charneco, a certified registered nurse and head of development for Woman & Child Services at EJGH encourages those in this age group to get the vaccination.
'There are students each year who die due to bacterial meningitis," she says. 'These deaths could most likely have been prevented through proper immunization. It's essential we keep our children safe from meningitis with proper vaccination."
Another reason students are more susceptible to meningitis and other infections is their lifestyle. Lack of sleep and exercise, poor nutrition and heavy drinking all weaken the immune system. Lopez advises, 'Take care of yourself, wash your hands thoroughly, don't use others' personal items, but most importantly, get the vaccine. Getting young adults to get any type of preventive medicine is difficult, but in this case, it's absolutely necessary."