With back-to-school season underway, you’re likely to read about the risk of meningitis among college students. While outbreaks of the disease have happened, getting meningitis is avoidable. Read on to learn about ways you can help protect your teen from meningitis before they head off to college.

1. Learn the facts

In a nutshell, meningitis refers to swelling of the protective membranes of the spinal cord and brain. It’s often the result of a virus. Unfortunately, there’s no cure or measure of treatment for the viruses that cause meningitis. The condition may take three weeks or more to resolve itself and fully recover.

Infectious meningitis can also be caused by parasites, fungus, or bacterial infections. The latter is the most common in college students and the most worrisome. Antibiotics and prompt medical attention are needed to treat bacterial meningitis to prevent complications in the brain and spinal cord.

Meningitis gets a lot of attention among college-age students because of the way the disease spreads. It’s highly contagious through respiratory secretions and saliva and can spread quickly within close quarters.

2. Know the symptoms

Educating yourself and your teen about the symptoms of meningitis is also important. Your teen can look out for the symptoms in others and steer clear of people who might have the bacteria. It’ll also help them know what to look out for when it comes to their health.

Symptoms include:

  • sudden onset of a high fever
  • severe headache
  • stiff neck
  • sensitivity to light
  • nausea or vomiting
  • flat skin rashes on the arms and legs
  • excessive fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • difficulties with concentration
  • seizures

3. Discuss safety measures in common areas

Meningitis spreads quickly in common areas — this is why the disease is often associated with college students. Between dorm living, classes, and get-togethers, your teen will be around others quite often.

Rather than advising your child to avoid groups of people, you can encourage them to use the following safety measures:

  • Wash your hands often (especially before eating).
  • Don’t share cups, bottles, or utensils.
  • Cover your mouth if you have to cough or sneeze.
  • Bring your own food to group settings, rather than sharing buffet-style meals.
  • Avoid environments where people are smoking.

4. Encourage self-care measures

As a parent, getting used to having a child that lives away from home can be a rough transition. Remember that your child is also dealing with stress. Not only do they have to worry about schoolwork and grades, but they also are likely managing a job, an internship, or other extracurriculars.

The life of a college student is exhausting. Besides getting your teen vaccinated, you should encourage them to invest in self-care when they’re away at school. If your child is overwhelmed and overworked, push them to take a break from their daily routine by way of walking, meditation, or another stress-reducing activity they enjoy. Also, encourage adequate sleep and maintaining a balanced diet. Alleviating stress can boost immunity and help guard against contagious diseases like meningitis.

5. Get vaccinated

Ultimately, the best way to protect your teen from bacterial meningitis is to make sure they get vaccinated before they head off to college. There are two types of meningitis vaccines available in the United States: meningococcal ACWY and meningococcal B.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) currently recommend that the two-dose meningococcal ACWY be given to all children when they are 10 to 11 years old, with a booster vaccine at 15 to 16 years old.

The meningococcal B vaccine can be given to any teen at risk for meningitis, but it isn’t currently routinely recommended by the CDC.

Meningococcal B is a much less common bacteria type but has been associated with certain recent outbreaks of meningitis. The meningococcal B vaccine is best given between the ages of 16 to 18, although young adults up to age 23 may consider getting it, according to the AAP.

Getting the meningitis vaccine doesn’t protect your child against viral meningitis. However, adequate childhood vaccinations help protect your child from other bacterial causes of meningitis like Streptococcal pneumoniae (PCV13 vaccine) and Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib vaccine).

Talk to your child’s doctor about meningitis vaccinations, and whether your teen needs a booster dose. Keeping up with these vaccinations is the most effective preventive measure against bacterial meningitis, which is life-threatening.

The takeaway

If you suspect your child has meningitis, it’s critical to act quickly. The sooner the infection is treated, the greater the chance of a less-complicated recovery.