Meningitis: A College Memory You Don’t Want

21 04 2010

Going away to school is a lifechanging experience. For many students, four years disappear into a haze of studying, working, and partying with their classmates. It’s a chaotic time where everything is shared: space, feelings, clothes, cars, and germs.

When a meningitis outbreak shows up in the news, it’s a good bet that it showed up at a school. Any shared spaces like schools, dorms, or barracks where crowds of young adults converge are favorite territories for bacteria and viruses to spread.

Meningitis, a serious but rare infection, is an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It affects about 1,500 Americans each year.

Meningitis is commonly mistaken for the flu in its early stages, and therefore left untreated. When this happens, it can do a lot of damage within hours, sometimes causing confusion, seizures, and brain damage. Survivors are often left with amputated limbs—permanent reminders of their experience.

So what does meningitis act like and why are colleges a prime environment for it?

Most meningitis patients complain of excruciating headaches, unyielding fevers, nausea, and vomiting. Sound like just a bad case of the flu? More telling are other symptoms, which include stiffness and pain in the neck (due to the swelling around the spinal cord and brain), sensitivity to light, numbness or loss of sensation in limbs, rashes, mental confusion, and convulsions and seizures.

Most at risk are college students. Busy, exhausted, and stressed students often have lowered immune systems. A wide variety of lifestyles and health choices create a melting pot of germs, especially when bathrooms and eating areas are shared. Meningitis is spread through contact with an infected person’s bodily fluid: a shared cigarette or drink, a kiss, a cough. It’s possible to carry a germ that causes meningitis and never be sick, while unknowingly passing it on to someone else. There are lots of ways to spread it.

Many such infections could be prevented with vaccination. Some schools are now requiring proof of vaccination; others only provide information about meningitis. Before heading off to college, make sure you’re protected and know what the warning signs are. Parents, if you’re reading this, make sure your son or daughter is protected before they leave you.  It could be the most important going-away gift you give your child.

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