Teens and Meningitis

It's every parent's worst nightmare: Their teenager returns home from camp or college with a fever, headache, and stiff neck—symptoms that sound a lot like the flu. But as it turns out, their son or daughter is suffering from a much scarier illness, meningitis. In some cases, the infection may go away on its own, but in other cases, the disease can result in seizures, brain damage, amputation, or even death.

Understanding Meningitis

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meningitis (also known as spinal meningitis) is an infection of the protective fluid surrounding the spinal cord and brain. Although the condition is considered rare, every year the disease strikes about 3,000 Americans and claims roughly 300 lives. Between 100 and 125 cases occur on college campuses annually, and approximately 15 college students die from the disease.

There are two main types of meningitis, which differ in both severity and treatment. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment, the CDC reports. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, can be life-threatening. Before the introduction of protective vaccines in the 1990s, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis; these days, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria meningitidis are the most common culprits.

Spotting the Signs

Because meningitis symptoms may be similar to those of other diseases, the infection can be hard to spot. Nevertheless, it's important that parents be on the lookout for the following telltale signs:


  • Sudden high fever
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck or joint pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Discomfort looking into bright lights
  • Confusion, sleepiness, or drowsiness
  • A purplish or reddish skin rash

These symptoms may develop over several hours or several days, and as the disease progresses, some patients have seizures. If any of these symptoms occur, it's critical that parents seek medical attention for their children as soon as possible, since early diagnosis and treatment can be life-saving. If your doctor suspects bacterial meningitis, he or she may administer a spinal tap or an XPert EV test to identify the type of bacteria responsible and to prescribe suitable antibiotics.

Reducing the Risks

Because of close contact with peers and/or cramped living quarters, teenagers, college students, and kids at camp are at increased risk for developing meningitis. In fact, cases among teens and young adults have more than doubled since 1991. According to the American College Health Association (ACHA), adolescents and young adults account for nearly 30 percent of all U.S. meningitis cases, and approximately 70 to 80 percent of these cases are potentially vaccine-preventable.

For this reason, the meningococcal vaccination is recommended for all adolescents 11 to 18 years of age. The ACHA further urges all college students under 25 years of age to receive the vaccine to reduce their risk.

In addition, talk to your doctor about ways to prevent meningitis, and educate your teen about the following preventative do's and don'ts:

  • Do eat a well-balanced diet, be physically active, and get plenty of sleep.
  • Do wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water.
  • Do inform your doctor immediately if you've been in close contact with someone who has meningitis (your doctor may prescribe antibiotics).
  • Don't share drinking glasses, utensils, water bottles, or food.
  • Don't share cosmetics, towels, or tissues.
  • Don't smoke cigarettes, take drugs, or consume alcohol.

If you can't afford health insurance for your children, you do have options. One choice is Medicaid, which is for low-income adults and children (the rules about who qualifies for Medicaid varies from state to state). There's also another program designed specifically to insure kids--even if their families don't qualify for Medicaid. The program is called the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and provides free or low-cost health insurance to kids under 18 who don't have any insurance. Each state comes up with its own rules, but in general, a family of four who earns less than $34,000 a year will qualify. To find out more, call 877-KIDS-NOW (877-543-7669) or visit this web site: http://www.insurekidsnow.gov/states.asp.