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Is Your Teen at Risk?

The bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis -- a disease that leads to inflammation in the brain and spinal cord -- can spread quickly through dorms and classrooms. Teens can pass these germs by sharing personal items like glasses and utensils -- and by kissing. If you find out there's been a case of meningitis at your kid's school, keep calm. There are ways to prevent them from getting it.

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Get Vaccinated

An easy way to prevent bacterial meningitis: Get a vaccine. There are different types. Kids usually get a shot of the meningococcal conjugate vaccine at age 11 or 12. Because protection fades with time, your teen needs a booster shot at 16 to cover them through college. Ask the doctor whether your child needs added protection from the meningococcal B vaccine, which they get between 16 and 18.

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Wash Hands

Meningitis germs spread through the air and on items an infected person has touched. Those germs can catch a ride on your teen's hands and end up in their nose or mouth. Remind them to wash their hands with warm water and soap throughout the day. It's especially important after they use the bathroom, before they eat, and after they've been around lots of people.

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Don't Share

You probably taught your kids to share when they were little, but this is one case where generosity is a bad idea. If they use the same glass or fork as a friend, swaps lipstick, or borrows a toothbrush from someone who's sick, it's a sure way to get infected. Tell your teen to keep their own set of personal items and just say "no" to anyone who wants to use them.

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Don't Get Too Close

Meningitis germs live in the mouth and throat. So it's no surprise that an easy way to spread them is by kissing. Tell your teen not to get up close and personal with anyone they think is sick.

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teen girl touching lips
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Keep Hands Away From the Face

Your teen's nose, mouth, and eyes are an easy entryway for the bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis. Tell your child to keep their hands off their face. Ask them not to bite their nails, rub their eyes, or pick their nose.

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teen in dorm room
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Clean Up

Let's face it, most teens don't win awards for cleanliness. But let your child know that good cleaning habits can help keep them from getting sick. Although the bacteria that cause meningitis don't live long on surfaces, viruses can survive for a while. Kids can pick up these bugs if they touch an infected doorknob, computer mouse, or counter. Scrub surfaces often with a disinfectant wipe or spray to kill germs.

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Sneeze Into a Sleeve

Every time an infected person coughs or sneezes, the force sends droplets with meningitis bacteria or viruses into the air. Anyone who's in the path of these flying germs can get infected. If your teen is sick -- no matter the cause -- tell them to be kind to others by coughing or sneezing into their sleeve or a tissue -- not into the air.

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Ask About Antibiotics

If your teen has been in contact with someone who has bacterial meningitis, antibiotics can help prevent them from getting sick. Check with your doctor. The drugs won't work for viral meningitis.  

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Eat Healthy Foods

One way for your teen to avoid getting sick is to eat more foods that boost the immune system -- the body's defense against germs. Suggest they try things like:

  • Spinach, broccoli, kale, or other leafy greens
  • Fruits like strawberries, cantaloupe, and oranges
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fortified whole-grain bread and pasta
  • Dairy foods like milk and yogurt
  • Lean proteins such as fish and skinless chicken breast
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Get Enough Sleep

You already know that when your teen misses out on a good night's sleep they're probably going to be groggy in class the next day. But not getting enough shut-eye also makes it harder for their body to fight off germs. Teens need 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night to feel their best. Encourage your child to cut off text messages and computer games at a reasonable hour each night so they can get the rest they need.

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Avoid Tobacco and Alcohol

Teaching your kids to stay away from these bad habits is good advice for many reasons. One is that they weaken their body's immune system. Being around cigarette smoke raises your teen's chances of catching meningitis -- and of passing it to others. Alcohol use -- especially binge drinking -- also makes teens more likely to get meningitis and other infections.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 02/11/2023 Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on February 11, 2023

CDC: "Case file: Meningitis Mutants," "Meningococcal Vaccination for Preteens and Teens: Questions and Answers," "Teens at Risk of Meningitis," "Viral Meningitis."

Child Mind Institute: "Why Are Teenagers So Sleep-Deprived?"

Cleveland Clinic: "Eat These Foods to Boost Your Immune System."

Hampton University: "Meningitis FAQ."

Mayo Clinic: "Lack of sleep: Can it make you sick?" "Meningitis: Self-management."

Meningitis Research Foundation: "Frequently asked questions," "Smokers at higher risk from meningitis."

National Sleep Foundation: "Teens and Sleep."

Princeton University: "Meningitis FAQ - General Information."

Voices of Meningitis: "Bacterial Meningitis."

Yale University: "Meningitis FAQ."



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Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on February 11, 2023

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.