Meningitis is a fairly uncommon disease. Only 800 to 1,200 cases are reported each year in the United States. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it can be extremely serious, causing “severe and devastating illness.”

If there has been an outbreak of meningitis in your community, it’s important to talk to your children about the illness. The disease is most common among 16- to 21-years-olds.

What is meningitis?

In general, meningitis refers to an acute inflammation of the delicate tissue lining the brain and spinal cord. The cause of this inflammation may be viral, fungal, or bacterial. Bacterial meningitis is the most serious type. There are several types of bacteria that can cause meningitis.

Meningococcal meningitis is a bacterial infection most often caused by bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. This type of bacteria is one of the most common and most serious forms of bacterial meningitis. It can strike rapidly, and if untreated can cause serious damage to the brain. It can even cause death.

Many people who get the infection recover, especially with prompt antibiotic therapy. But some may experience serious aftereffects, such as an intellectual disability, loss of function in a limb, or hearing loss.

Since 2005, a vaccine against the germ that causes meningococcal meningitis has been available. The CDC recommends that all children be vaccinated at 11 to 12 years of age. After that, a booster should be given at around 16 years of age.

Young people who will be attending college and living in a dormitory should receive the vaccine, especially if they were not vaccinated at a younger age. Many colleges now require incoming freshmen to prove they have been immunized against meningococcal meningitis.

Who is at risk?

Teens are among the most likely to contract the disease. They are also the most likely to be carriers of the bacteria responsible for meningococcal meningitis infection. The disease is spread through close contact with body fluids, such as saliva or nasal secretions.

Some people can be carriers of the bacteria that cause meningitis. They don’t have meningitis and may not have any specific symptoms. They may not even be aware that they have been infected, but they are still capable of infecting others.

Sharing utensils, open-mouth kissing, and sneezing on another person are all ways that carriers may transmit the disease. Of course, people who are actually sick with meningitis are also capable of transmitting the infection to others.

If someone your child knows has been infected, your child may be at risk. Health officials will probably contact anyone who may have had intimate contact with the person who has been infected. Among teens, this could include dormitory roommates, friends, dating partners, or anyone else who may have had more than casual contact with the person.

It’s important to teach children not to share food, drinks, or utensils with other children. In most instances, a kiss on the cheek will not transmit the bacteria. But they should also be aware that kissing could transmit the disease. Invisible droplets through the air can also transmit the disease when an infected person coughs or sneezes nearby.

What are the symptoms?

You should encourage your child to seek medical attention if they experience certain symptoms while living away from home. Meningitis symptoms may include:

  • rapid-onset fever
  • vomiting
  • severe and persistent headache
  • stiff neck
  • confusion
  • sensitivity to light

Another possible symptom is a purple-colored rash. An angry rash signals a particularly dangerous form of the disease, in which the bacteria gets into the bloodstream. This condition is known as meningococcal septicemia and can be deadly. Remind teens to never ignore these types of symptoms and to seek immediate medical attention.