Talk to Your College-Bound Teen About Meningitis

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on February 02, 2019
4 min read

When your teen is getting ready to leave for college, you probably have a lot of topics to discuss -- handling expenses, joining a fraternity, drinking, sex, and getting along with roommates. But what about meningitis? Most parents don't think much about it, but experts say you need to bring it up.

While the disease is rare, it's dangerous, and outbreaks on college campuses happen regularly, says Sarah Meyer, MD, a CDC medical officer.

Sit down with your youngster and share some basics about the illness and how they can protect themself.

There are many different types of meningitis, but the most serious is caused by bacteria called meningococcus. When you hear about outbreaks on campuses, they're almost always meningococcal disease, says Francesca Testa, a spokeswoman for the National Meningitis Association.

Meningococcal bacteria can cause more than meningitis, a swelling of the spinal cord and brain. They can also cause meningococcemia, an infection of the blood that can spread to other organs. Some people get both infections at the same time.

The disease is most common when you're between 15 and 21. Experts aren't sure why. But we know that outbreaks are more likely where people are crammed together, the way they are in a college dorm, where it's easier for germs to spread.

Antibiotics can cure meningococcal disease. But the problem is that the disease spreads so quickly, many people don't get help in time. Even with treatment, more than 1 out of 10 people with meningococcal disease die. Many more have lasting disabilities like brain and organ damage, amputations, and more.

Testa knows the dangers firsthand. She came down with meningitis when she was 17 and nearly died. "I was lucky," she says. But recovery took a long time, and she still battles with the aftereffects, like vision and hearing loss, headaches, and problems with mental skills.

Vaccines can prevent most cases of bacterial meningitis. But many parents don't know there are two kinds of shots for teens and preteens.

Conjugate vaccine (available as Menactra or Menveo). This vaccine has been around for years. It's a routine shot, and many colleges require it. Most kids get it at age 11 or 12 and a booster at 16. It protects against four different types of meningococcal bacteria.

Serotype B vaccine (MenB, available as Bexsero or Trumenba). This vaccine is pretty new. It's only been around since 2014. It protects against a specific type of bacteria that isn't covered by the conjugate shot: serotype B. It's for teens and young adults ages 16 to 23, though the preferred age is 16 through 18.

While the CDC doesn't recommend the serogroup B vaccine for all college-age kids, some experts do.

 "If my kids were going to college, I'd tell them to get it," says Kwang Sik Kim, MD, director of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

The reason? In the past 5 years, serogroup B has caused most of the more serious college outbreaks.

"A lot of families assume that the conjugate vaccine covers every strain," says Testa, who also recommends the MenB vaccine. "They think their kids are protected [during serotype B outbreaks], but they aren't."

At the very least, your child needs to talk with their pediatrician about the serotype B vaccine.

The symptoms of meningococcal disease, especially in the early stages, are similar to those of common illnesses like the flu. It can cause:

  • Fever (usually above 101.4 F)
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches

How can you tell meningococcal disease from a run-of-the-mill virus? It's not always easy. But Kim says some signs definitely need emergency medical attention:

  • The combination of stiff neck, fever, and headache
  • Seeming confused or not like themselves
  • Symptoms that get worse very quickly
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Purple rash that spreads quickly

When it comes to treating meningococcal disease, hours make a difference. So if your child is worried they have it, or they learn a friend or roommate do, they need to get help right away.

Some commonsense things can lower your kid's chance of getting sick from meningitis or any other infection. Tell your teen to:

  • Wash their hands often
  • Not share glasses or utensils
  • Get enough sleep, stay active, and eat a healthy diet
  • Not smoke

If there's an outbreak of meningitis at your kid's college, don't panic, Meyer says. Your child should follow the instructions from the school. Staff may offer vaccines to students who don't already have them. People who had contact with the sick person will get antibiotics too, just in case.

For now, the best way for your kids to stay healthy is to get the vaccines, Testa says.

"When you look at how dangerous this disease can be, how much suffering it can cause, there's no reason to take a chance anymore," she says. "The vaccines are there. Take advantage of them."