How it spreads, risk factors and prevention

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that surround the spinal cord and the brain. Viral and bacterial meningitis are the most common forms. Viral meningitis is often mild and goes away on its own, while bacterial meningitis can be life threatening if left untreated.

Meningitis is contagious. It spreads through contact with bodily fluids and can pass quickly when people share a living environment or close quarters. This makes residence halls and classrooms high-risk places for meningitis transmission. For this reason, many colleges and universities require students to have proof of meningitis vaccination.

We’ll look at how meningitis is passed from person to person, what you can do to limit your risk factors at school, and when to get vaccinated.

Meningitis is spreading per contact with saliva, nasal drainage and any other nasal and pharyngeal discharge. It can also be spread through feces or blood.

This means that it is very easy for meningitis to pass through routes such as:

  • shared cups or utensils
  • coughing or sneezing in enclosed spaces
  • embrace
  • sharing items such as cigarettes, lip balm, or toothbrushes
  • sharing needles for drugs or intravenous (IV) medication

Meningitis can spread quickly in a household once a person is infected. Symptoms vary depending on the type of infection, but can include neck pain, fever, and headache.

Complications of a serious case Meningitis, especially if left untreated, can include permanent hearing loss and cognitive and motor impairments.

College dorms, especially college dorms that house freshmen, are a group living situation where meningitis is known to spread quickly. This is why students have a slightly higher risk to contract meningitis than teenagers and young adults who have not attended school.

It’s important to remember that while chronic illnesses put you at increased risk of getting meningitis, the majority of people who get the disease in a college setting are otherwise healthy.

Fortunately, being aware of your risk factors can help you take precautionary measures to protect yourself and others.

Meningitis can also develop as a complication of syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection (STI), known as syphilitic meningitis, although this is very rare. Following safe sexual health practices can help prevent syphilis and other infections.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), several factors can increase your risk of getting meningitis. In addition to being a student attending in-person classes or living in a dorm, risk factors include:

  • Age. Meningitis is more common in infants, adolescents, young adults and the elderly.
  • Travel. People who have recently traveled to parts of sub-Saharan Africa may have an increased risk of contracting meningitis.
  • Have a persistent deficiency of complement components. Persistent deficiencies in complement components are rare disorders that are usually genetic. Taking complement inhibitor drugs for these disorders may also be a risk factor.
  • Have a chronic illness. Certain chronic diseases are associated with an increased risk of contracting meningitis and developing a particularly serious infection. This is especially true for conditions that affect the immune system, such as:
  • Not having a functioning spleen or having no spleen at all. The spleen plays a key role in creating the antibodies that respond to meningitis bacteria, so without this organ you are more vulnerable to infection.
  • Intravenous drug use. Drug use involving the sharing or use of needles, bringing people’s blood in contact with each other, increases the risk of contracting meningitis, hepatitis, HIV, etc.

There are vaccines available to help prevent bacterial meningitis, the most dangerous type. According to World Health Organization (WHO)approximately 1 in 10 people who contract bacterial meningitis die worldwide.

Since the use of vaccines in the 1990s, the incidence of meningitis in the United States has declined significantly. After the CDC recommended the MenACWY vaccine for adolescents in 2005, the incidence of meningitis C, W, and Y dropped by more than 90 percent in this age group.

The The CDC recommends that all tweens and teens receive meningitis vaccines. Many colleges require proof of a meningitis vaccine before a student can move into dorms.

Here is an overview of the age recommendations for tweens and teens by type of vaccine:

  • 11 to 12 years old. The MenACWY vaccine followed by a booster at 16 years.
  • All teenagers. The MenB vaccine. This vaccine is especially recommended for adolescents 16 to 18 years old and adolescents and preadolescents who are at medically high risk of contracting meningitis. A healthcare professional can help you decide which vaccine is most appropriate.

In some cases, babies and children under 10 years of age will be advised to receive the MenACWY vaccine. This includes babies and children who have HIV, who do not have a spleen or whose spleen is damaged, or who are taking complement inhibitor drugs.

Likewise, there are circumstances where the CDC recommends meningitis vaccination for adults. Generally, this applies to unvaccinated adults who have certain risk factors, adults who will be traveling to a high-risk location, and people who work frequently with meningitis bacteria (microbiologists).

Learn more about meningitis vaccination.

In addition to vaccination, students can take other steps to protect themselves and prevent the spread meningitis and other infections.

These measures include:

Meningitis isn’t the only infection that can spread on college campuses. The college environment often puts large numbers of people in close quarters for group activities and living conditions. This can lead to the rapid spread of bacteria and viruses.

Some other common campus infections include:

In addition to vaccines for bacterial meningitis types, vaccines for influenza, HPV, and COVID-19 are also available.

The flu vaccine is annual. Many university health centers offer this vaccine, and it is usually available at pharmacies, grocery stores, and various other local sources.

The HPV vaccine is normally started before a student reaches college. The vaccine is a series of two or three injections. A child can receive their first HPV vaccine as early as age 9.

There are several COVID-19 vaccines and boosters widely available. Learn more about COVID-19 vaccine safety here and find out where you can get your first shot or booster shots here.

Meningitis spreads through contact with bodily fluids. This makes crowded spaces, such as college dorms and classrooms, high-risk environments for transmitting or catching the disease.

Bacterial meningitis is the most common and dangerous type. It is important to take preventive measures, such as not sharing food or utensils and washing your hands regularly with soap and water.

Vaccination plays a central role in stopping meningitis infection. Meningitis vaccines have been shown to be safe and highly effective in slowing the spread of bacterial meningitis and saving lives.

Most colleges require proof of meningitis vaccine if you wish to reside in dorms. The right vaccine depends on your age and risk factors. Talk to a doctor or other healthcare professional about scheduling vaccine counseling to learn more.

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