Meningitis is a serious disease that often affects young people, although it can strike at any age. An inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, meningitis is usually caused by a virus but can also be the result of bacteria. This distinction is important, because the seriousness of the disease and the treatment it warrants differ depending on the cause. While viral meningitis is usually milder and goes away in a few days, bacterial meningitis strikes quickly and can be fatal. Early detection can mean the difference between life and death, or at least permanent disability.

The main symptoms of meningitis mimic the flu--a high fever, headache and a stiff neck. Other symptoms may include vomiting or nausea, mental confusion, sleepiness or difficulty waking up, light sensitivity, and loss of appetite. As the disease progresses, patients may have seizures. It can be difficult to detect meningitis in infants, who are not able to complain of a headache or stiff neck, so look for unusual slowness or inactivity, irritability, poor appetite, or vomiting.

If you see any of these symptoms, and even if you think it's the flu, get to a doctor as soon as possible. A spinal tap is the usual method of diagnosis, and a hospital stay with antibiotic treatment is necessary if the diagnosis is positive. Without prompt treatment, meningitis can swiftly progress and cause hearing loss, blindness, speech impairment, learning disabilities, behavior problems, and brain damage. It also can cause kidney and adrenal gland failure. At worst, it can kill. The National Meningitis Association estimates that of the nearly 3,000 meningitis cases a year in this country, 10 to 12 percent result in death and about 20 percent suffer long-term disabilities.

Since bacterial meningitis is contagious, it's a particular worry in group settings such as summer camps or college dormitories. The germs can spread from person to person via coughing, sneezing, and kissing, so it's important to practice good hygiene if you or someone you know is sick. If you've been close to someone who contracts meningitis, you're at increased risk of contracting it as well and may need preventive antibiotics. Luckily, there's a simple way to avoid getting meningitis: the meningococcal vaccine. Several different vaccines are available, depending on the age group you're in. If you're concerned about this serious disease, talk to your doctor about inoculation.