Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that surround your spinal cord and brain. Viral and bacterial meningitis are the most common forms. Viral meningitis is often mild and resolves on its own, while bacterial meningitis can be life threatening if untreated.

Meningitis is contagious. It spreads through contact with bodily fluids and can pass quickly when people share a living environment or close quarters. This makes residence halls and classrooms high risk locations for meningitis transmission. For this reason, many colleges and universities require students to have proof of meningitis vaccination.

We’ll overview how meningitis passes from person to person, what you can do to limit your risk factors at school, and when to get vaccinated.

Meningitis spreads through contact with saliva, nasal drainage, and any other nasal and throat discharge. It can also spread through fecal matter or blood.

This means it’s very easy for meningitis to pass through avenues such as:

  • shared cups or utensils
  • coughing or sneezing in enclosed spaces
  • kissing
  • sharing items such as cigarettes, lip balm, or toothbrushes
  • sharing needles for intravenous (IV) drugs or medications

Meningitis can spread quickly throughout a household once one person is infected. Symptoms vary depending on the type of infection, but can include a sore neck, fever, and headache.

Complications from a severe case of meningitis, especially if untreated, can include hearing loss and permanent cognitive and motor impairments.

College dormitories, especially college dormitories that house college freshmen, are a group living situation where meningitis is known to spread quickly. That’s why college students have a slightly higher risk of getting meningitis than teenagers and young adults not at college.

It’s important to remember that while chronic conditions put you at increased risk of getting meningitis, the majority of people who catch the disease in a college setting are otherwise in good health.

Luckily, being aware of your risk factors can help you take precautionary measures to keep yourself, and others, safe and healthy.

Meningitis can also develop as a complication of the sexually transmitted infection (STI) syphilis, known as syphilitic meningitis, although this is very rare. Following safe sexual health practices can help prevent against syphilis and other infections.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are multiple factors that can increase your risk of getting meningitis. In addition to being a college student attending in-person classes or living in a dorm, risk factors include:

  • Age. Meningitis is most common in infants, teens, young adults, and older adults.
  • Travel. People who have recently traveled to some parts of sub-Saharan Africa might have an increased risk of getting meningitis.
  • Having a persistent complement component deficiency. Persistent complement component deficiencies are rare disorders that are typically genetic. Taking complement inhibitor medications for these disorders can also be a risk factor.
  • Having a chronic condition. Certain chronic health conditions are associated with an increased risk of getting meningitis and of developing a particularly a severe infection. This is especially true for conditions that affect the immune system, such as:
  • Not having a functioning spleen or having no spleen at all. The spleen plays a key role in creating the antibodies that respond to meningitis bacteria, so without this organ you’re more vulnerable to infection.
  • IV drug use. Drug use that involves shared or used needles, putting people’s blood in contact with each other, increases the risk of getting meningitis, hepatitis, HIV, and more.

There are vaccinations available to help prevent bacterial meningitis, the most dangerous type. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 1 in 10 people who get bacterial meningitis die globally.

Since vaccines came into use in 1990s, the incidence of meningitis in the United States has declined substantially. After the CDC recommended the MenACWY vaccine for adolescents in 2005, the incidence of meningitis C, W, and Y dropped by more than 90 percent in this age group.

The CDC recommends that all preteens and teens receive meningitis vaccines. Many colleges require proof of a meningitis vaccine before a student can move into the dorms.

Here’s a look at the age recommendations for preteens and teens by vaccine type:

  • 11- to 12-year-olds. The MenACWY vaccine followed by a booster shot at 16.
  • All teens. The MenB vaccine. This vaccine is especially recommended for teens between 16 and 18 years of age and for teens and preteens who are at a medically high risk of getting meningitis. A medical professional can help you decide which vaccine is most appropriate.

In some cases, babies and children under 10 years of age will be advised to get the MenACWY vaccine. This includes babies and children who have HIV, who don’t have spleens or have damaged spleens, or who take complement inhibitor medications.

Similarly, there are circumstances when the CDC recommends meningitis vaccination for adults. Generally, this applies to previously unvaccinated adults who have certain risk factors, adults who will be traveling to a high risk location, and people who frequently work with meningitis bacteria (microbiologists).

Learn more about meningitis vaccination.

In addition to vaccination, college students can take other steps to help protect themselves and prevent the spread of meningitis and other infections.

These measures include:

Meningitis isn’t the only infection that can spread on college campuses. The college environment often puts large numbers of people in close quarters for group activities and living arrangements. This can lead to bacteria and viruses spreading quickly.

Some other infections that are common on campuses include:

In addition to vaccines for the types of bacterial meningitis, vaccines for the flu, HPV, and COVID-19 are also available.

The flu vaccine is annual. Many college health centers offer this vaccine, and it’s generally available from drugstores, grocery stores, and a variety of other local sources.

The HPV vaccine is normally started before a student reaches college. The vaccine is a series of two or three shots. A child can be given their initial HPV vaccine when they are as young as 9 years old.

There are several COVID-19 vaccines and boosters widely available. Learn more about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines here, and find out where you can get your first shot or boosters here.

Meningitis spreads through contact with bodily fluids. This makes crowded spaces, such as college dorms and classrooms, high risk environments for transmitting or catching the disease.

Bacterial meningitis is the most common type, and the most dangerous. It’s important to take preventive measures, such as not sharing food or utensils and regularly washing your hands with soap and water.

Vaccination plays a central role in stopping meningitis infection. Meningitis vaccines have proven to be safe and very effective at slowing the spread of bacterial meningitis, and saving lives.

Most colleges require proof of the meningitis vaccine if you want to reside in dorms. The right vaccine depends on your age and risk factors. Talk with a doctor or other healthcare professional about scheduling vaccine counseling to learn more.