Meningitis

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection that can lead to a dangerous swelling of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The disease can be caused by either a virus or bacteria. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment, while bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result in brain damage, hearing loss, learning disability, or death. About 2600 people get bacterial meningitis each year in the U.S. 10 to 15% of these cases are fatal, in spite of treatment with antibiotics. The disease can also cause permanent disabilities such as hearing loss, brain damage, seizures or amputation.

Why are college students at risk for meningitis?

College students have a greater risk of bacterial meningitis infection than the general population because of activities that are often part of college life, such as living in residence halls, eating in dining halls and attending classes.

How is meningitis transmitted?

Bacterial meningitis is transmitted through air droplets and direct contact with anyone already infected with the disease. The infection is spread through close contact with oral secretions, such as shared drinks, utensils and cigarettes, through coughing, or through intimate contact such as kissing.

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What are the symptoms and when should I seek medical care?

Early symptoms of meningitis may include:

  • High fever
  • Rash
  • Vomiting
  • Severe headache
  • Neck stiffness
  • Lethargy
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light

Because the infection progresses rapidly, you should seek immediate medical care if 2 or more of these symptoms occur at the same time. If you are a Brown student and have 2 or more of these symptoms at the same time, call 401.863-1330 without delay.

How long after exposure to meningitis will symptoms appear?

It's easy to mistake the early symptoms of bacterial and viral meningitis for the flu. These symptoms may develop over a period of 1 or 2 days, but some types of meningitis can prove fatal in a matter of hours. Even in less severe cases, the longer you delay getting treatment, the more likely you are to have permanent neurologic damage. Seek medical care right away if you or someone you know has any of the above symptoms.

How is it diagnosed?

Early diagnosis and treatment are very important. The diagnosis is usually made by growing bacteria from a sample of spinal fluid. The spinal fluid is obtained by performing a spinal tap, in which a needle is inserted into an area in the lower back where fluid in the spinal canal is readily accessible. Identification of the type of bacteria is necessary to prescribe the correct antibiotic treatment.

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How is it treated?

Bacterial meningitis can be treated with a number of effective antibiotics. It is important, however, that treatment be started early in the course of the disease. Appropriate antibiotic treatment should reduce the risk of fatal meningitis to below 15%, although the risk is higher among the elderly.

Is it contagious?

Yes, some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious. The bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (i.e., coughing, kissing). People in the same residential unit, day care center, or anyone with direct contact with an infected person's oral secretions would be considered to be at increased risk of acquiring the infection. People who qualify as close contacts of a person with meningitis should receive antibiotics to prevent them from getting the disease. Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as things like the common cold or the flu.

Can I prevent meningitis?

You can minimize your risk of bacterial meningitis by receiving a vaccine. The meningitis vaccine is generally safe and effective and is used for immunization against bacteria strains A, C, Y, and W-135, which account for about 70% of bacterial meningitis cases. At this time, it is unclear how long immunity lasts, so booster shots may be required in the future. As with any vaccine, not all individuals will be protected 100% after receiving the immunization.

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Does the vaccine have side effects?

The bacterial meningitis vaccine is generally well tolerated with a low incidence of side effects. Some people may experience a local reaction (warmth, redness, swelling, or soreness) at the injection site for 1 to 2 days. However, as with any drug or vaccine, there is a possibility that allergic or other more serious reactions may occur.

Who should NOT get the meningitis vaccine?

  • Anyone with a serious, active infection
  • Anyone with a hypersensitivity or allergy to thimerosal (a preservative used in eye drops and vaccines)
  • Any woman who is or may become pregnant

How much does the vaccine cost?

The vaccine costs approximately $120 and may be billed to the student's bursar account. Brown insurance does cover the cost of the vaccine (with a copay) if you are 18 or younger. If you have other health insurance, check the policy for reimbursement information.

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When can students be vaccinated?

Brown students can call Health Services at 401.863-1330 to schedule an appointment to receive the vaccine.

Links you can use

To learn more about meningitis, you can visit:

Centers for Disease Control
This site has information on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of meningitis.

MEDLINE Plus
This site has several articles on meningitis, including general overviews, and information on treatment and prevention.

PBS Nova Series, "Killer Disease on Campus"
At this site you can read an interview with a college-aged survivor of meningitis, read frequently asked questions about meningitis and view interactive displays about vaccine production.

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Disclaimer: BWell Health Promiotion is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Promotion maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Promotion offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.