Before College, Get Smart On Meningitis Symptoms, Prevention

Healthy Living Steward Health Care

By James Hedde, MD, a physician at Steward Health Care specializing in family medicine.

For recent high school graduates getting ready to head to college, the end of summer is an exciting time. Many will be living on their own for the first time, making lifelong friendships, and being exposed to new ideas and perspectives. However, this newfound freedom and independence also comes with a new world of responsibilities, including protecting one’s health. An important health risk that soon-to-be college students should be aware of is meningitis.

While exciting, the adjustment to college can be jarring to many new students, who do not need the added stress of fighting off a serious illness as they begin the next chapter of their life.

Although viral meningitis is typically milder, bacterial meningitis, if left untreated, can lead to serious disabilities including brain damage, hearing loss, learning disabilities, or even death.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges – the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord – and is most commonly caused by viral or bacterial infections. Common symptoms of the disease include a sudden fever, headaches or a stiff neck. More severe symptoms can include nausea and vomiting, an increased sensitivity to light, confusion and the possibility of seizures.

College-aged students, along with young children and senior citizens, are already at an increased risk of contracting meningitis.

A particular concern for new college students is the fact that infectious diseases like meningitis have a tendency to spread when large groups of people share the same living space. Students living in close proximity to other students – through dorms and shared bathrooms – are, unfortunately, a perfect conduit to spread diseases unless proper preventative measures are taken.

Meningitis is spread when individuals exchange respiratory and throat secretions through close contact, such as kissing, coughing, sharing a drink, or extended contact, such as living together.

Individuals can also be carriers for meningitis without getting sick themselves, students must be vigilant in practicing healthy behaviors that minimize their chances of contracting meningitis. I recommend the following prevention tips to my patients:

  • Wash hands thoroughly
  • Don’t share common items such as drinking glasses or toothbrushes
  • Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes plenty of rest, exercise, and a balanced diet

For bacterial meningitis, it is important to also follow the recommended vaccine schedule. If contracted, bacterial meningitis requires a regimen of antibiotics to be treated safely and effectively. Viral meningitis will typically resolve itself within 7 to 10 days.

By practicing the same healthy behaviors one would use to avoid catching a cold or the flu, first-year college students can protect themselves from meningitis, allowing them to spend less time under the weather and more time enjoying their college experience.

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