Why Are College Students at Risk for Bacterial Meningitis?

Students moving in

College students | mangostock/GettyImages

A student at Penn State University is being treated for bacterial meningitis, according to the school’s website.  Health officials found a single case of meningococcal meningitis and the student is being treated at Mount Nittany Medical Center, Newsweek reports.

According to Penn State’s website: “University Health Services, a unit of Penn State Student Affairs, is working closely with the Pennsylvania Department of Health to monitor the case. Close contacts of the student, who resides on campus, have been notified and provided with the appropriate antibiotic prophylaxis.”

Although severe, bacterial meningitis is rare in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tracked 4,100 cases between 2003 and 2007 with 500 being fatal. Some groups of the population are more vulnerable to getting bacterial meningitis. Babies are at an increased risk, but so are those who travel and live in confined spaces with others.

Because college students live in close quarters, they too are at a heightened risk. What makes college students a higher risk and is there anything you can do about it?

What is bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the brain and spinal cord, caused by a viral, fungal or bacterial infection, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Meningitis can be viral or bacterial. Approximately 80% of all cases are bacterial, the Cleveland Clinic reports, which can be extremely dangerous.

Symptoms include a high fever, neck stiffness and the inability to lower your chin to your chest. Neck stiffness, while a hallmark sign isn’t the same as a sore neck. “It means really a stiff neck — not just ‘I slept on it funny,’ but ‘It’s really hard for me to move my neck,’” Dr. Christina Johns, senior medical adviser for PM Pediatrics told The Today Show.  Young children may vomit, but older children and adults may appear confused and overly drowsy.

Progression of symptoms is fast, usually within 24 hours. Getting medical attention immediately is critical as bacterial meningitis can be fatal. Other complications include limb loss, hearing loss, brain damage or a learning disability, according to according to ABC News.

How can you contract bacterial meningitis?

Close contact is one major risk factor, according to ABC News. This includes touching or consuming contaminated items. Other ways the infection spreads is through coughing, sneezing and kissing, according to Healthline. You typically cannot get the infection through casual contact.

Eating certain foods carries an infection risk. They include soft cheeses, hot dogs, and sandwich meat, according to Healthline.

College students are at risk

Although rare in the 1980’s, an incidence of the disease as increased through the 1990’s, ABC News reports. However, the CDC tracked risk to still be low for college students at 1.4 cases per 100,000. Of the 96 cases the CDC studied, approximately one-third were college freshman who lived in a dormitory.

Meningitis cases at colleges are not new. Princeton University endured a nine-month battle against the B strain of the disease in 2013, NPR reports. A vaccine for the specific strain, serogroup B, at Princeton wasn’t readily available at the time. The first vaccine for serogroup B was approved in 2014, according to NBC News.

College freshman are especially vulnerable

College freshman may be at greater risk because students live in confined spaces. Plus they may partake in smoking and drinking, which are a risk factor, ABC News reports.

While the CDC did not pinpoint why freshman may be more vulnerable, they took a stab at a hypothesis. Because most freshmen live in a dormitory, they may be exposed to the bacteria more often.

Vaccines are available

A dose of the quadrivalent meningococcal conjugate vaccine, which protects against four strains of meningococcal disease: A, C, W, and Y is readily available for children ages 11 to 12, The Today Show reports. However, now teens can receive the MenB vaccine, recommended for 16 to 18-year-olds.

Check out The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!