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Avoiding Meningitis

Learn how to protect your child from meningitis.
Updated: December 1, 2022

Avoiding Meningitis

Need another reason to lecture your teen about keeping partying to a minimum? Researchers have now linked smoking, second-hand smoke, and binge drinking to an increased chance of contracting deadly bacterial meningitis.

Meningococcal disease strikes about 3,000 Americans each year and is responsible for approximately 300 deaths annually. During the past decade, the number of bacterial meningitis cases among adolescents ages15 to 24 has doubled to 600 each year. It is estimated that 100 to 125 cases occur annually on college campuses, and 5 to 15 students die as a result.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that certain groups of college students had six times the risk of contracting the potentially fatal bacterial infection. What did these students have in common? Many lived in dormitories on campus, were vulnerable to upper respiratory infections, and were exposed to passive and active smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.

What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the brain that occurs when the meninges, or protective membrane that covers the brain and spinal column becomes inflamed, and spinal fluid become infected with bacteria, viruses, or fungi. There are two kinds of meningitis:

  • Viral meningitis, while painful, is not life-threatening.

  • Bacterial meningitis is fatal in up to15 percent of cases, unless treated by intravenous antibiotics in the very early stages.

    If there's a confirmed case among dorm mates, oral antibiotics are prescribed for everyone who has been in contact with the infected student. Outbreaks usually occur in the late winter and early spring when school is in session. Some people who survive the disease suffer hearing loss, mental retardation, and loss of limbs.

    What are the symptoms?

    • Stiff neck
    • High fever
    • Rash
    • Sensitivity to light
    • Vomiting
    • Lethargy, confusion, mood changes

    The biggest problem with detecting meningitis is that the symptoms often mimic those of the flu, so they are ignored. Experts recommend that if all the flu-like symptoms exist along with a stiff neck, students are urged to seek medical care immediately.

    Bacterial meningitis progresses rapidly, causing irreparable harm often in as little as 12 hours. The only way to positively diagnose it is with a spinal tap. Your child should go to an emergency room ASAP instead of waiting for it to "pass." Chicken soup does NOT cure bacterial meningitis.

    How is meningitis spread?
    Believe it or not, only about 10 percent of the population carries the germ in their nasal pharynx and are susceptible to the meningococci bacteria. Others can be exposed and not get sick. The bacteria reside in the mouth and nose, and researchers believe that coughs, sneezes, and smoke can carry the disease The crowded conditions of dorms and, campus bars can compromise the immune system and cause college students to be more susceptible to catching the disease if they carry the bacteria in their body.

    Binge drinking and tobacco smoke weaken the immune system so greatly that the bacteria overwhelm the white blood cells, interfere with the creation of antibodies, and leave the body vulnerable to attack. Tobacco smoke also damages the cilia, microscopic hair-like projections, that help keep the lungs healthy. With the body's defenders compromised, the bacteria run rampant and inflame the membranes around the brain and spinal cord.

    Vaccinations are available!
    Surprisingly, most parents don't realize that there has been a vaccine available for meningitis for years. The menomune vaccine, which is effective against most, but not all, strains of the bacteria, has been used in the military to prevent the spread of meningitis in crowded living conditions.

    The CDC recommends that university health services provide vaccines to college freshmen, particularly those who live in or plan to live in dormitories or residence halls. Most colleges now provide these shots free or charge less than $75 for a vaccine that protects for three to five years. The only negative reaction from the vaccine has been a slight, temporary soreness and redness at the site of the injection.

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