“I thought I was coming down with the flu,” Janet Cornebise says about her bout with meningitis. “It was just before finals in my freshman year of college, so I was pretty stressed out. Then one night I got an unbelievable headache and my ears wouldn’t stop ringing. I spent the night in the bathroom, throwing up and crying for my mom. The next morning my friends in the dorm took me to the clinic. When the doctor tried to push my head down to my chest, I screamed. They did a spinal tap, which I didn’t even feel because my head hurt so much. I spent the next 10 days in the hospital with penicillin dripping into me.”
There are two types of meningitis: viral and bacterial. Janet had bacterial meningitis, the more serious kind. Both are highly contagious.
Rare but Scary
Meningococcal meningitis, more commonly known as bacterial meningitis, is an inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and the spinal cord (the meninges). Meningitis occurs when bacteria enter the bloodstream and travel through the blood to the meninges. The membranes become inflamed, and the spinal fluid is infected. Meningitis also can cause blood poisoning and the destruction of tissue. Meningitis bacteria live in the back of the nose and throat. About 10 to 25 percent of the population carry the germs, but are not affected by the bacteria.
Bacterial meningitis is highly contagious, extremely dangerous, fast-moving, and sometimes fatal. About 3,000 people in the United States get meningitis every year, and 10 percent, or 300, of the victims die. Many survivors of meningitis have lifelong complications, including brain damage, hearing loss, limb amputation, and kidney failure.
Meningitis symptoms are much the same as the symptoms of flu. The danger is that meningitis moves so quickly that often, by the time it has been diagnosed, the infection can’t be reversed. If you suspect you have meningitis (see the fact box for symptoms), get to an emergency room immediately.
Be AWARE of the Symptoms
If you suspect that you or a friend may have meningitis, call your doctor immediately or go to an emergency room. Treatment must be started quickly to avoid complications. Symptoms of meningitis include:
* High fever
* Stiff neck
* Severe headache (the worst you’ve ever had)
* Sensitivity to light
* Purple spots that don’t turn white when pressed
* Becoming very sick very quickly
Bacterial meningitis is treated with heavy doses of intravenous antibiotics. A doctor often starts a patient with suspected meningitis on antibiotics before having a definite diagnosis. Meningitis is diagnosed with a spinal tap: A thin needle is inserted between two vertebrae into the spinal canal. A sample of the spinal fluid is withdrawn and checked out at a laboratory. This tells the doctor what strain of meningitis the patient has, which directs the treatment.
Viral meningitis, which is caused by a virus, is more common and less serious. As with other viral infections, antibiotics aren’t effective; bed rest and fluids are the best treatment. Most cases clear themselves up in a week or two.
Who Gets Meningitis?
In the last decade, the number of cases in young people between the ages of 15 and 24 has doubled. A study in the August 2001 Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that during the 1990s, the death rate from meningitis among teens and young adults was significantly higher than in the rest of the population.
Infectious diseases spread quickly wherever large groups of people congregate, such as in college dorms. One hundred to 125 cases of meningitis occur every year on college campuses, and five to 15 of these cases result in death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), students living in dorms are six times more likely to contract meningitis than other students. And freshmen living in dorms have the highest risk of all.
Robin Kolble, a registered nurse and the coordinator of the Student Wellness Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says, “As a mother, a nurse, and a health educator, I think that one reason freshmen in dorms are more at risk is because of poor life-management skills. They tend to have poor sleep habits, poor nutritional intake, and poor stress-management skills.”
What You Can Do
Meningitis bacteria are spread by direct contact and can’t live very long outside the body. Therefore, the most effective ways to avoid getting meningitis are not to share sodas, water bottles, toothbrushes, and other items that touch your mouth. In addition, it helps to get plenty of rest, exercise regularly, and eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Robin Kolble says that the most important thing students can do to avoid getting sick is to wash their hands. This means washing your hands vigorously with soap, front and back, and rinsing thoroughly under running water.
A vaccine that is 85 percent effective against meningitis strains has been available since the early 1980s. Military bases, like college dorms, were often subject to meningitis outbreaks. Since 1982 new military recruits have been given the vaccine routinely, and the number of cases has dropped dramatically.
Lynn Bozof, the director of the National Meningitis Association, is a strong proponent of the vaccine. Her son died of meningitis at the age of 20 when he was living in a college dorm. Bozof is now educating students, parents, and legislators about the vaccine.
Currently, six states require vaccinations for all incoming college freshmen.