Meningitis Vaccine Especially Important for Teens, Young Adults

Teens and young adults are the groups at highest risk of catching the contagious and potentially dangerous disease meningitis.

Meningitis is a swelling of the protective membranes that cover your brain and spinal cord, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are two main types of meningitis – bacterial and viral.

Bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency. It progresses rapidly, often over just hours, and can lead to serious, life-long complications or even death,” says Certified Nurse Practitioner Jacqueline Isaacs, of Brookville Family Care, part of Premier Physician Network. "Partial or complete loss of hearing, brain damage, nerve damage, or loss of limbs can occur even in those treated quickly, making rapid diagnosis and treatment essential.”

Viral meningitis is more common. It is still serious, but rarely causes long-term complications.

How It Spreads

The disease is contagious and spreads through respiratory secretions when someone coughs or sneezes. Kissing, sharing utensils, sharing toothbrushes, or even drinking from the same container can also spread meningitis.

Once you’re infected with the virus or bacterium, it travels through your bloodstream and causes the inflammation around the lining of your brain and spinal cord.

Infectious diseases like meningitis spread quickly among large groups of people. Gathering together for sports, in clubs, at social outings and at school increases the risk for teens and young adults.

Communal housing and living in close quarters also add to the risk of meningitis exposure among college students.

“Teens and young adults ages 16 to 23 are the highest at-risk group by population for contracting the illness,” Isaacs says. “Of those diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, up to 20 percent of survivors suffer serious, life-long complications, while an additional 15 percent diagnosed die as a result of the infection, despite rapid treatment.”

Prevention Is Key

Getting vaccinated is an important step against preventing meningitis. The first dose of the meningitis vaccine should be given to children around 11 or 12 years old, with a booster at age 16.

If your children don’t get the first vaccine until between 13 and 15 years old, they should wait to get the booster until they are between 16 and 18.

Anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated for meningitis by age 16 only needs one dose.

If you catch meningitis, you might only notice vague symptoms at first and think it’s just a cold or a stomach bug, but the disease can take a quick turn and become fatal, Isaacs says.

Both bacterial and viral meningitis cause many of the same symptoms, including:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty waking up
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Stiff neck
  • Vomiting

Bacterial meningitis symptoms can also include a rash and seizures.

Symptoms of viral meningitis can resemble the flu, including body aches, a cough, and a runny nose.

Health care providers can diagnose meningitis and determine which type you have using information you give them, blood tests, a lumbar puncture, and imaging.

"Viral meningitis is not treated with antibiotics. It is usually managed at home with supportive measures during recovery,” Isaacs says. “Bacterial meningitis requires immediate hospitalization for antibiotics and other needed medications and for very close monitoring." 

To learn more about meningitis talk to your doctor or health care provider or search for a provider.

Source: Certified Nurse Practitioner Jacqueline Isaacs; Brookville Family Care; Meningitis, Sprain, or Contusion, Krames, 4/1/2018; Bacterial Meningitis, Krames, 3/1/2018, Centers for Disease Control (CDC)