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Meningitis is an infection of the fluid of the spinal cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain. Meningitis is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Knowing whether a virus causes meningitis or bacterium is important because the severity of illness and treatment differ. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment, while bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result in brain damage, hearing loss or learning disability.

Symptoms usually appear within five days of exposure and include high fever, chills, headaches, nausea and vomiting, confusion, stiff neck or back, and abdominal, back and extremity pain. Symptoms can develop over several hours or they may take 1 or 2 days. These symptoms, particularly in the early stages, may resemble common upper respiratory ailments such as the cold or flu. If a student experiences progression of cold symptoms to more severe symptoms, including a persistent and severe fever, headache, nausea and vomiting, confusion, extreme physical weakness, and a purplish rash, s/he should immediately contact the Student Health Center or his/her health care provider for assessment and treatment.

Bacterial meningitis is contagious, however, it is not easily transmittable. Indirect or casual contact (such as being in the same room with someone who is infected) is not enough to cause transmission of bacterial meningitis. Direct contact with someone who has bacterial meningitis does increase the likelihood of being exposed to it. This includes direct exposure to oral or nasal secretions, which result from the coughing or sneezing of an infected person. Therefore, good hygiene practices help prevent its transmission. Do not share eating or drinking utensils.

Persons who have had recent intimate or direct exposure to someone with meningococcal disease may be at increased risk for contracting meningococcal disease and should receive prophylactic medication. Intimate or direct exposure is through kissing, sharing eating utensils or glassware, or droplet contamination with nose or throat secretions from the infected individual.

Unlike viral meningitis, bacterial meningitis can be treated through the use of antibiotic therapies. Students with persistent symptoms they are unsure about should contact the Student Health Center for appropriate assessment.

In May 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued recommendations stating that all incoming college freshmen living in dormitories be vaccinated against meningococcal disease. The CDC also recommended vaccination of all adolescents at high school entry and during the pre-adolescent health care visit (11-12 year old).

The American College Health Association (ACHA) issued similar immunization recommendations for all first-year students living in residence halls. The CDC and ACHA recommendations further state that other college students under 25 years of age may choose to receive meningococcal vaccination to reduce their risk for the disease.

ACHA and CDC recommendations, coupled with the availability of a new vaccine that may provide longer duration of protection, will help increase rates of immunization against meningococcal disease and will give college health professionals the guidance needed to help protect college students against meningococcal disease.

The Student Health Center staff stresses the importance of being informed on this health issue. Students with any concerns about the effect of bacterial meningitis on their health and well-being should not hesitate to contact the health center for information and clarification of their concerns.

The symptoms may not be the same for every person. The more common symptoms are fever, severe headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to bright lights, drowsiness or confusion and nausea or vomiting.

Viral meningitis is serious but rarely fatal in persons with normal immune systems. Usually, the symptoms last from 7 to 10 days and the person recovers completely. Often the symptoms of viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis are the same. For that reason, if a student has these symptoms he/she should go to the Student Health Center or other health care provider for assessment and treatment.

The symptoms may not be the same for every person. The more common symptoms are fever, severe headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to bright lights, drowsiness or confusion and nausea or vomiting.

The viruses that cause viral meningitis are contagious. However, most people exposed to the viruses causing meningitis will not develop the disease. They may have no symptoms or develop only a cold or rash with low-grade fever. Typically, less than 1 out of 1000 persons infected actually develop meningitis. Therefore, if you are around someone who has viral meningitis, you have a moderate chance of becoming infected but a very small chance of developing meningitis.

Enteroviruses, the most common cause of viral meningitis, are most often spread through direct contact with respiratory secretions such as saliva, sputum or nasal mucus. This usually happens by shaking hands with an infected person or touching something they have handled, and then rubbing your own nose, mouth or eyes. The incubation period is usually between 3 and 7 days from the time you are infected until you develop symptoms. You can usually spread the virus to someone else beginning about 3 days after you are infected until about 10 days after you develop symptoms.

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