As summer wanes and our kids get ready to head back to school, those of us with college age kids are checking lists, buying and collecting supplies and packing boxes and bags. Many of us are concerned about whether our children are truly ready to make this leap to semi-independent living. While talking honestly to our kids about campus safety and making good choices, we also need to make them aware of health issues.
Fortunately, COVID-19 is no longer the threat it once was, but we here at Alzein Pediatrics know there are other illnesses that can be even more concerning, especially meningitis. When kids are at home, parents will notice symptoms that need to be addressed quickly; when kids are on their own, they may not take the necessary steps when they are ill.
Back to school means conditions are right for a group of enteroviruses to spread through close-contact communities with developing immune systems. While there is no true “meningitis season,” understanding the causes and symptoms can help you and your child prevent and quickly respond to a meningitis infection.
A meningitis diagnosis means that a patient’s meninges are inflamed. Meninges are the membranes that protect our brains and spinal cords. When those fluids become infected, they become inflamed and exert pressure on the brain and spinal cord. How dangerous that pressure is typically depends on what is causing the infection. Most meningitis cases in the United States are caused by a viral infection. Viral meningitis is rarely life-threatening and generally resolve on its own in a few weeks with proper rest and care.
Bacterial meningitis is the illness of much greater concern. While less common than viral meningitis, bacterial meningitis poses a very high risk of brain damage and death if not treated early. Some common bacteria such as meningococcus, pneumococcus, and Hib can cause meningitis, and those with developing or weakened immune systems are at a higher risk of developing bacterial meningitis. For this reason, around 70% of all bacterial meningitis cases in the United States occur in children under the age of 5.
Bacteria are primarily transmitted through respiratory pathways, and so college dorms, boarding schools, and childcare centers are common sights for meningitis outbreaks. However, bacteria can enter the bloodstream in any number of ways, and meninges can be infected by way of an ear or sinus infection. Because there are so many pathways to infection, parents and college-age kids should be aware of the possible signs of a meningitis infection.
Unfortunately, the most common symptoms – headache, stiff neck, fatigue, aches, and nausea – are universal for many illnesses, and can be easily dismissed by a college student who has pulled an all-night, been to a party or played a vigorous game of basketball. However, meningitis sufferers may also experience more serious fevers, confusion, sensitivity to light, and seizures. Because not all patients will experience all symptoms, and because all symptoms will not present at once, it’s important that parents and students understand that getting to a healthcare provider as soon as possible is essential if a meningitis infection is suspected.
Your child’s provider may use a nasal swab or blood test or, in serious cases, a spinal tap or scan to diagnose meningitis and determine its underlying cause. Untreated, bacterial meningitis can lead to prolonged pressure on the brain and the spinal column, resulting in brain damage or even death. Doctors will treat bacterial meningitis with antibiotics. In some cases, the sinus cavities may need to be drained to ensure the infection is entirely eliminated.
Vaccines to the rescue! As complicated and dangerous as meningitis might seem, the good news is that many recommended vaccinations significantly decrease your child’s chances of contracting both viral and bacterial varieties of meningitis. The Hib vaccine has greatly reduced bacterial meningitis infections caused by Haemophilus influenza type b, while various Pneumococcal and Meningococcal vaccines provide protection for other variants.
While vaccines provide a layer of protection, there are also common-sense prevention methods, such as washing hands frequently and thoroughly, covering the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing and avoiding sharing anything that goes in the mouth, such as drinking straws and silverware.
The good news is that recent research indicates that cases of meningitis and related deaths have declined worldwide by more than half since 1990. The World Health Organization hopes to “defeat” bacterial meningitis with vaccinations and wider testing by 2030. This would end epidemics of meningitis and also improve quality of life.
As school begins, talk to your older children about the symptoms of meningitis and be aware of these symptoms in your younger children if they complain of feeling ill. Get to Alzein Urgent Care, or the nearest ED as soon as possible if you suspect meningitis. Getting treatment as soon as possible narrows your child’s risk of life-changing complications.
Do you have questions about meningitis or your college-age student’s health? Message us through your portal; we will be happy to help!