Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that wrap around and protect the brain and spinal cord. It can have many causes, the most serious of which are infection by either viruses or bacteria.
Meningitis caused by bacteria is rare, but very serious and a medical emergency. One bacterial form that is seen in adolescents and young adults is caused by a bacteria called “Neisseria meningitidis” or “meningococcus.” Meningitis caused by it is called “meningococcal meningitis” and those age 16-23 are at highest risk for this disease. Early diagnosis and treatment for meningococcal meningitis is essential as it can be life threatening. Other bacteria can also cause meningitis and be life threatening. Common symptoms of meningitis are:
- Sudden, severe headache
- Neck and back stiffness
- Sensitivity to light
- Mental changes/confusion
Anyone with these symptoms should be seen right away.
If you have bacterial meningitis, you will need to be hospitalized and isolated to prevent further spread of the infection. You will be treated with intravenous antibiotics (given with fluids through a needle in your veins). People who have had close contact with persons with known bacterial meningitis urgently should contact the Student Health Center medical clinic or their primary care provider to consider a preventive course of antibiotics. This is important for disease caused by meningococcus and by a bacteria called Haemophilus influenzae B (or H.flu, or HiB for short). Preventive antibiotic treatment for these can prevent the disease in susceptible individuals if given in time after exposure.
Anyone can get meningococcal meningitis. Healthy habits are still important: not smoking, getting adequate exercise and eating well, managing stress, washing hands and not sharing oral or respiratory secretions
Vaccination is the BEST form of protection. There two types of meningococcal vaccine. One can help prevent meningococcal disease caused by subgroups A, C, W and Y. The other can help prevent the disease caused by subgroup B. Ideally college students under the age of 23 should receive these vaccines before coming to campus. These vaccines are also available at the Student Health Center Immunization Clinic. Call 812-855-7688 to schedule an appointment.
Many common viruses can also cause meningitis. Viral meningitis can present with the same symptoms as bacterial meningitis listed above. It is often less severe than bacterial meningitis and usually resolves without specific treatment.
There are other causes of meningitis, including some types of fungus, parasites, amebas, and even inflammatory non-infectious causes. These are much less common than the bacterial and viral types. Special testing is needed right away to distinguish between the different types of meningitis, so that appropriate treatment can be given.
For more information visit these Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) resources: