Imagine sending your 18-year-old child off to college, only to have them come down with flu symptoms within a few weeks of moving into the dorm. You're sympathetic, but not too concerned. It's one of the risks of hanging out in group situations—influenza infections can spread rapidly. Unfortunately, more serious infectious diseases, can also target college students. One of them, bacterial meningitis, is an emergency, with life-threatening complications. Here's what you need to know.
What Is Meningitis?
Meningitis is an inflammation and swelling of the meninges, a membrane that lines the brain and spinal cord. Most cases of meningitis are either viral or bacterial in origin, with viral being more common, but bacterial being more serious.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, bacterial meningitis can be caused by one of half a dozen different bacteria. These bacteria can also be responsible for sepsis, which is a life-threatening condition caused by the body's response to a bacterial infection. Sepsis often accompanies bacterial meningitis and can cause organ shutdown, tissue death, shock, seizures and death. Sepsis is a major cause of amputations, kidney failure, hearing loss and brain damage in those who survive bacterial meningitis.
Bacterial meningitis is typically transmitted through close physical contact or airborne. This is why college students living in dormitories are at risk as well as athletes and other groups who are in close contact with people who may be infected. Not covering one's mouth when coughing or sneezing, sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses, and kissing are common transmitters of the meningitis bacteria.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Bacterial Meningitis
Because the first symptoms of bacterial meningitis so closely resemble those of the flu, it's important to be informed and aware. A person with the flu will often experience headaches, body aches, sore throat, fever and nausea. So will those people in the first stages of meningitis. If the symptoms continue to worsen quickly and progress to severe headaches, stiff neck, drowsiness, leg and back pain, you need to be concerned. If a rash appears, the person has a sensitivity to light or experiences hallucinations, it's time to seek emergency treatment.
One method to determine if a rash is due to bacterial meningitis is through the tumbler test. You can press a clear bottomed drinking glass against the rash. If you can still see the red spots, seek medical help immediately.
A definitive diagnosis for meningitis is done through a spinal tap. A needle is inserted into the spinal column and a sample of spinal fluid is withdrawn and examined for bacterial infection.
Treatment and Prevention
According to Voices of Meningitis, 800 to 1200 people will contract meningitis each year. Of those, 10 to 15 percent will die. That is why treatment for bacterial meningitis must be started immediately. Often antibiotics are given before a definitive diagnosis is made, but can be discontinued if bacterial meningitis is ruled out later. Other measures include close monitoring, fluids and supportive treatment of involved systems and organs.
The best way to prevent bacterial meningitis is through vaccination. Children and adolescents should be vaccinated between 11 and 12 years of age and boosted at age 16. The vaccination only prevents some of the bacterial strains that cause meningitis, so teach your college-bound children about meningitis and the importance of covering their cough, avoiding sharing eating utensils and watching for signs of the disease.