Meningitis FAQ

On Campus, Know Your Risk, Learn About Vaccination

What is Meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord caused by either a virus or bacteria.

Viral Meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis and usually occurs in late spring and summer. Signs and symptoms of viral meningitis may include stiff neck, headache, nausea, vomiting and rash. Most cases of viral meningitis run a short uneventful course, since the causative agent is a virus, antibiotics are not effective. Persons who have had contact with an individual with viral meningitis do not require any treatment.

Bacterial Meningitis occurs rarely and sporadically throughout the year, although outbreaks tend to occur in late winter and early spring, and may be caused by one of many different types of bacteria. Bacterial meningitis in college aged students may be due to an organism called meningococcal bacterial or Neisseria Meningitides. Because meningococcal meningitis can cause grave illness and rapidly progress to death, it requires early diagnosis and treatment. Persons who have had intimate contact with someone who has been diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis should seek medical attention so that they may get prophylactic therapy, which is a course of antibiotics. Untreated meningococcal meningitis can be fatal.

College Students and Meningitis Risk

Recent evidence has found that students residing on college campuses in residence halls appear to be at higher risk for meningococcal disease than college students overall. Research recently released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows freshmen living in dormitories have a six times higher risk of meningococcal disease than college students overall.

Although anyone can come in contact with the bacteria that causes meningococcal disease, data also indicates that certain social behavior, such as exposure to passive and active smoking, bar patronage, and excessive alcohol consumption, may put students at increased risk for the disease. Students with respiratory infections, compromised immunity, those in close contact to a known case, and travelers to endemic areas of the world are also at increased risk. Cases and outbreaks usually occur in the late winter and early spring when school is in session.

How is Meningitis Spread?

  • many of the viruses that cause meningitis are spread through saliva or feces.
  • bacteria are spread from person to person through saliva (spit).
  • most people may already have immunity (natural protection) from many of these germs.
  • you must be in close contact with a person's saliva in order for the bacteria to spread.
    • Close contact includes activities such as kissing, sneezing or coughing on someone, sharing water bottles, lipsticks, mouth pieces on musical instruments, sharing eating/drinking utensils, or sharing cigarettes with someone who is sick.
    • Classmates and co-workers are not normally considered to be at high risk for getting bacterial meningitis, unless they have special, close contact with a person who is sick from bacterial meningitis.
  • most of the germs that cause meningitis disease can spread from person to person, but they will not cause the disease just by getting in to the throat.

How is Meningococcal Disease Diagnosed?

  • people showing signs and symptoms of illnesses are diagnosed by culturing their spinal fluid (meningitis) or blood (meningococcemia)
  • it may take up to 72 hours to test results
  • sometimes a doctor can make an earlier diagnosis by looking at a person's spinal fluid under a microscope

Signs and Symptoms of Illness*

Meningococcal Meningitis*

  • sudden onset of a high fever, stiff neck or neck pain, headache, nausea vomiting, and/or mental confusion.
  • changes in behavior such as confusion, sleepiness, and being hard to wake up are important symptoms of this illness.
  • a rash may appear, often involving the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
  • in babies the only signs of this illness may be acting more tired than usual, acting more irritable than usual, and eating less than usual. Babies with meningitis will usually have a fever, but this is not a reliable sign of illness.

*Anyone who has these symptoms should contact their doctor right away.

Meningococcemia* (bacterial infection in the blood)

  • sudden onset of fever, chills, and feeling unusually weak or tired
  • a rash may be present, often involving the palms of the hands and soles of the feet

*Anyone who has these symptoms should contact their doctor right away.

How are these illnesses treated?

  • Antibiotics are used to treat people with both the (meningococcal) meningitis and meningococcemia.
  • People who have come in close contact with the sick person any time during the two weeks before she/he became ill may also need to take antibiotics.
  • Preventive treatments of all close contacts should be implemented up to two weeks after onset of the first case but preferably as soon as possible within the first 24 hours.

Why do close contacts need to be treated?

  • Close contacts of a sick person who has meningococcal disease with antibiotics because the bacteria may spread from the sick person to other people through contact with the saliva (spit) of the sick person.
  • The antibiotics will kill the bacteria and prevent illness.

What should I do if I have had a close contact
with a person who has a meningococcal illness?

  • If you have had a close contact with a person who has been diagnosed with a meningococcal illness, you should call your health care provider and get an antibiotic.
  • If you have had contact with an ill person, but have not had close contact, you should be aware of the symptoms of illness and contact your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms.

Are there times when I would not have to take
antibiotics after close contact with a sick person?

  • Meningitis can be caused by different organisms, including other bacteria and viruses.
  • Only certain types of meningitis require treatment of the sick person's close contacts.

If you have questions about meningitis or your exposure to a sick person, contact you doctor.

Preventive Measures

  • Avoid contact with the nasal or oral secretions of others
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Get lots of sleep, exercise and good nutrition which will boost your immune system.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so responsibly and in moderation. Excessive alcohol consumption is believed by some health authorities to increase susceptibility to meningoccoccal meningitis.
  • Do not smoke.

Is there a vaccine to protect me from getting sick?

There is a vaccine to protect against meningococcal disease. The vaccine has been shown to provide protection against the most common strains of the disease. The vaccine has few side effects and those that occur are usually mild, consisting primarily of redness and pain at the side of the injection.

What is the duration of the protection from the vaccine?

The duration of the meningococcal vaccine's efficacy is approximately three to five years.

Who should consider vacination with the meningococcal vaccine?

As of October 20, 1999, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that college freshmen, particularly those who live or plan to live in dormitories or residence halls, should consider the benefits of vaccination with their health care provider. ACIP further recommends that immunization should be made easily available to those who wish to reduce their risk for meningococcal disease. Other undergraduate students wishing to reduce their risk for meningococcal disease can also choose to be vaccinated.

As part of this informational program, parents of entering freshmen will receive a letter explaining why college students are at increased risk of contracting bacterial meningitis and details on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

Students will also be made aware of the meningitis risk through a comprehensive educational campaign on campus. Locally, the Hampton Health Department has the meningitis vaccine available during the 2001-2002 Fall and Spring semester. The fee for the immunization may change. Students may call for information regarding access to the vaccination:

  • 757.727.1172 Ext. 172

For additional information contact:

  • Student Health Services 757.727.5315
  • Your family doctor
  • Your local Board of Health (listed in the telephone book under local Government).