The Importance of Meningitis Awareness and Prevention Among College Students

August 26, 2019


Sending your recent graduate off to college can be worrisome for more reasons than one.

Will they be safe?

Will they get good grades?

Will they call me if something happens?

These concerns are natural, and there’s a key way to help relieve them: make sure your child knows what to do.

When a young adult falls ill with what they think is a common cold or flu, they may not reach out for help. It’s essential that they are aware of their heightened risk for bacterial meningitis – which is easily transmissible within the close quarters of college living – and can recognize the symptoms.

Meningitis is an infection of the lining of the spinal cord and brain – called the meninges – which can result in brain swelling and permanent damage, says Dr. Michael Barnish, Infectious Disease Specialist at Jefferson Health in New Jersey.

The two most common types of meningitis are viral and bacterial, which have some symptoms in common, but differ greatly in severity.

According to the CDC, college students, especially freshmen, are at a higher risk for bacterial meningitis than the general population. This is because it’s transmitted through nasal secretions. If an infected student coughs or sneezes, shares utensils or cups, kisses, or just touches a common object, it can spread the disease.

Freshmen, Dr. Barnish explains, typically have the most confined living environments with the most students residing in them. Upper classmen and non-residential students are at a lower risk. Studies also show that the peak age for bacterial meningitis ends around 21 years of age.

“Viral meningitis symptoms include fever, severe headaches, nausea, irritability, light sensitivity, and some neck stiffness,” said Dr. Barnish. “It’s treated with fluids and pain medication, and usually goes away within a week or two. It’s commonly caused by viruses that are prominent during the late summer and fall.”

The symptomatic differences for bacterial meningitis are notable, says Dr. Barnish. Someone with viral meningitis will remain oriented, whereas someone with bacterial meningitis will likely experience a change in mental status (e.g., become confused or lethargic).

If bacterial meningitis is not treated promptly, with antibiotics and steroids, it can be fatal (sometimes within 24 hours, depending on the strain of bacteria). If your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, they need to go to the hospital and should contact student health services, so that outbreak prevention measures can be made.

“Some strains of bacterial meningitis can cause long-term neurological consequences, such as hearing loss, intellectual impairment, seizures, and partial paralysis,” continued Dr. Barnish.

When it comes to prevention, immunization is key. The MenACWY vaccine, recommended by the CDC at age 11-12, is required for residential students by most colleges. A booster shot will also be required if never administered at age 16 (or even if it was administered before the age of 16).

MenACWY protects against over half of bacterial meningitis cases, explains Dr. Barnish. Meningitis B, however, accounts for the remainder, and a separate vaccine (the MenB or serogroup B vaccine) is needed – although, presently only in outbreak response on campus. College students’ risk for meningitis B is no higher than the age-matched risk in the general population for this strain of bacterial meningitis.

In addition to meningitis vaccines, college campuses typically require the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps, and rubella), Tdap (for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis), and the varicella (or chickenpox) vaccine. They may also recommend the HPV vaccine, Hep A, and Hep B vaccines.

If you are unsure whether or not you’ve received certain immunizations, check your records! If your records are unavailable, you can get revaccinated, explains Dr. Barnish. Doctors can run blood tests to assess immunity in most cases, but the MenACWY would have to be administered again, since there is no reliable test yet.

While nothing is as helpful as the vaccines, it always helps to wash your hands! While the risk for bacterial meningitis is not something to obsess over, it should be communicated with all the incoming, wide-eyed students.