Teens and Meningitis: What You Should Know | Revere Health

Meningitis is a rare infection that affects the meninges, delicate membranes that cover the brain and the spinal cord. It’s possible for anyone to contract it, but while it’s uncommon overall, teens and young adults aged 16 to 23 are at increased risk.

There are multiple types of meningitis, and they can range from moderate to severe and life-threatening.

Meningitis Types and Causes

There are three primary types of meningitis:

  • Bacterial meningitis: A serious illness that can be life-threatening and cause brain damage, bacterial meningitis requires immediate treatment. It’s caused by several possible bacteria, and often starts when these bacteria enter the bloodstream through the sinuses, ears or throat. It then travels through the bloodstream to the brain. It can be passed through coughing or sneezing.
  • Viral meningitis: More common than the bacterial form, and usually less serious. Several viruses can trigger the disease, and some will also cause diarrhea.
  • Fungal meningitis: Far less common than the other two types and rarely found in healthy people, fungal meningitis is most common in people with immune system issues like AIDS.

It’s most common for children under 5, teenagers and young adults aged 16-25, and adults over 55 to get meningitis.

Meningitis is almost always caused by these infections that begin somewhere else in the body besides the brain. The ears, sinuses or throat are good examples. Other less common causes of meningitis may include:

  • Syphilis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Cancer medications

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of meningitis in you or your family may include:

  • Stiff neck that can make it hard to touch the chin to the chest
  • Headache, often severe
  • High fever
  • Confusion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Discomfort due to bright lights
  • Sleepiness
  • Seizures
  • Rash

In some cases, these symptoms come on the heels of a flu-like illness, ear infection or sinus infection.

For young children who are too young to talk, it may be tougher to notice symptoms as they cannot verbalize them. In babies and young children, other signs to watch for include:

  • Fever
  • Sluggish behaviors
  • Irritable nature
  • Trouble with feeding
  • High-pitched crying
  • Red or purple spots on the skin
  • Crying when held
  • Arching of the back

People who have meningitis generally become ill very quickly, and you should call your doctor immediately if you notice any of these symptoms. Quick treatment can make a big difference.

Treatment

Lab tests can help determine the type of meningitis your teen has, if they have it. A spinal tap, or lumbar puncture, may be used to determine an initial diagnosis. Treatment depends on the type of meningitis:

  • Bacterial: Bacterial meningitis requires immediate and speedy treatment, and your teen will likely have a stay in the hospital for antibiotics to be injected through an IV while you wait for spinal tap test results. Antibiotics will continue for up to two weeks, and your teen will likely be isolated for at least 48 hours due to how easily this spreads. They may prefer a darker room because meningitis can make the eyes sensitive.
  • Viral: In most cases, viral meningitis goes away on its own with time. Your teen may just need a few days in the hospital for fluids through an IV, plus painkillers. Viral meningitis will not be affected by antibiotics.
  • Fungal: Fungal medications from a hospital can help fight rare fungal meningitis infections, and liquids for dehydration will also be part of treatment along with drugs to control pain and fever.

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Vaccines

Because of the higher odds of meningitis for teens, vaccines are very important. Many schools require a meningitis vaccine at some point in middle school or high school. There are two primary meningitis vaccines, aimed at protecting against five of the bacteria that most commonly cause bacterial meningitis (types A, B, C, W and Y):

  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY) protects against types A, C, W and Y.
  • Meningococcal B vaccines (MenB) protect against type B.

Doctors strongly recommend a dose of MenACWY for kids at 11 or 12 years old, then a booster at age 16. Kids who get an initial shot after age 16 won’t need a booster. Your doctor may suggest a MenB vaccine for teens and young adults between 16 and 23, and the best time to get this is between ages 16 and 18.

In the case of children who have higher risk of meningitis—due to immune diseases, spleen damage or removal, living near an outbreak, taking drugs that limit the immune system or traveling to a place where it’s common—they may need vaccines at a younger age. Check with your doctor here.

If you’re wondering about protecting your child or teen from meningitis, your doctor can offer additional recommendations.

Sources:

“Teens and Meningitis.” WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/children/teens-meningitis-17/default.htm

“Meningococcal Vaccination for Preteens and Teens: Information for Parents.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/mening/public/adolescent-vaccine.html

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.

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