Meningitis in Teens

Teenage girl at school with a headache

Imagine you hear of an outbreak at your son’s school of kids contracting meningitis. As the responsible parent you are, you take all the necessary precautions. You ensure he washes his hands right when he gets home, force him to bring hand sanitizer to school, and thoroughly clean your house. But you wonder, is this enough? Let’s break down what meningitis is, what causes it, and what you need to know to keep you and your family safe.

What is spinal meningitis?

Simply put, meningitis is an infection that causes the spinal fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord to inflame. The infection targets meningeal membranes, which are protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. These membranes act as a protective barrier for the central nervous system. If the meninges become inflamed, it may lead to severe complications (like hearing loss or vision loss).

What causes meningitis?

The three causes of spinal meningitis are bacterial, viral, or fungal infections.

  1. Bacterial Meningitis – Spread through respiratory droplets from an infected person’s coughs or sneezes, various strains of bacteria can cause meningitis. Bacterial meningitis is the most severe of the three and can be life-threatening or cause brain damage if you don’t act quickly. Although bacterial meningitis can be scary, the chances of your teens getting it are pretty low.
  2. Viral Meningitis – The viral strand is the most common. However, it’s less severe than its counterpart and often resolves on its own with supportive care treatment (like pain control and physical therapy). Similar to the bacterial strand, it can be spread through coughs, sneezes, and saliva.
  3. Fungal Meningitis – Unlike viral or bacterial meningitis, fungal meningitis is not contagious. People get this type of meningitis when they breathe in fungal spores. The fungal infection enters the lungs and spreads to the brain or spinal cord. As scary as this sounds, it’s the rarest of the three, but it may require prolonged treatments and even hospitalization for those with weaker immune systems.

How do I know if my teen might have meningitis?

It can be challenging to know if your teen has meningitis, keep an eye out for these indicators:

  1. Extreme Fatigue – Teens may naturally be sleepy due to their lifestyle and growth, but if it seems more excessive than usual in combination with other symptoms, it may be a sign of meningitis. Fatigue may also be combined with drowsiness, confusion, or unresponsiveness.
  2. Stiff Neck – Discomfort and tightness along the neck, shoulders, and chest, especially when touched, is a common symptom due to inflammation. It may feel like a kink in their neck that can’t be stretched out.
  3. Severe Headaches – Teens with meningitis frequently experience an intense, persistent headache that may become debilitating.
  4. Sensitivity to Light – Often coupled with headaches, bright lights can be painful for those with meningitis.
  5. Nausea and Vomiting – Upset stomachs and vomiting are natural reactions with severe headaches caused by meningitis.
  6. Skin Rash – A rash may develop in some cases, particularly with bacterial meningitis. This rash does not fade when pressure is applied and is a medical emergency.
  7. Seizures – In bacterial meningitis, seizures may occur.

How is meningitis treated?

The excellent news about meningitis is that all three types are treatable, but also preventable (more on that below).

  1. Bacterial Meningitis: If you suspect bacterial meningitis, seek medical help immediately, as early intervention can be life-saving and prevent long-term complications. Antibiotics, sometimes I combination with corticosteroids, may be prescribed depending on the type of bacterial infection.
  2. Viral Meningitis: Viral meningitis is less severe than bacterial meningitis; however, a doctor’s visit is still recommended. With a lot of rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relievers, the infection should resolve on its own. In severe cases, antiviral medications may be prescribed.

  3. Fungal Meningitis: Fungal meningitis may take longer than bacterial or viral meningitis to overcome, and a doctor’s visit is necessary. Antifungal medications are usually prescribed, and in severe cases, hospitalization may be required to receive ongoing care.

Why are teens affected more?

Due to their social lives and close interactions with others at school, the everyday life of a teen puts them at a higher risk of contracting meningitis than most people. Poor eating habits, stress, and lack of sleep contribute to the list of reasons teens are more susceptible. Sharing drinks, kissing, or attending crowded events like homecoming or high school football games are also hotspots for spreading meningitis.

What can my teen do to prevent meningitis?

Preventing meningitis in teenagers primarily involves reducing the risk of infection. Here are some strategies you can share with your teen:

  1. Vaccination: Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent bacterial meningitis. Ensure your children receive vaccinations against the different types of meningitis as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  2. Don’t share personal items: One of the most common ways meningitis spreads is through saliva. Warn your child that sharing drinks, eating utensils, or even lip balm can spread the infection.
  3. Practice good hygiene: Encourage your teen to wash their hands frequently and to cover their mouths and nose when sneezing or coughing. Keeping hands away from their face also helps reduce entry through the eyes, nose, and mouth.
  4. Social distance from those infected: Since meningitis is contagious through close contact, encourage your teen to distance themselves from those infected, even if it’s their boyfriend, girlfriend, or best friend.
  5. Live a healthy lifestyle: Getting plenty of rest, eating a balanced diet, and exercising helps boost the immune system and reduce infection risk.
  6. Clean up: Although bacterial meningitis doesn’t survive long on surfaces, viral meningitis can. Encourage your teen to clean their room and do their chores with disinfectant wipes and sanitizing sprays, and as a side bonus, you no longer have to deal with their messes.
  7. Educate them: The more your child knows about meningitis, the more likely they are to practice safe behaviors.

While meningitis isn’t common, its serious nature should never be underestimated. Staying informed, emphasizing hygiene, and taking proactive steps can help keep your teen safe while they enjoy all their high school years have to offer.

Robyn Alfeche, M.D.

Robyn Alfeche, M.D.

Robyn practices pediatrics in our West Jordan office.

a happy father receives a kiss from his son

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