What is Meningitis?

Meningitis and Meningococcal Infection

Meningitis is an infection that can lead to a dangerous swelling of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by either viruses or bacteria. Because of this, meningitis can present various symptoms and respond differently to treatment.

Signs may include: flu-like symptoms that develop over 1-2 days, including sudden fever, severe headache, and stiff neck; and neurological symptoms, including nausea and vomiting, confusion and disorientation, drowsiness, sensitivity to bright light, and poor appetite.

Karen's Story

In January, Karen (an 18-year-old college freshman) woke up and thought she was getting the flu. As the day went on, she felt worse and worse. By the time she arrived in the emergency room that evening, she had experienced several seizures and was going into shock. Meningococci (the bacteria that cause meningitis) had caused severe swelling of Karen’s brain, and gangrene, which was rapidly spreading to her arms and legs. Despite appropriate antibiotics, to save Karen’s life, doctors had to amputate two of her limbs. And as a result of the swelling of her brain, Karen suffers from a loss of hearing and requires anticonvulsant medication to control her seizures. *Karen represents a hypothetical college student.

There are two kinds of meningitis; each caused by different types of organisms:

This is the more common form of the disease. Viral meningitis is usually not as serious as bacterial meningitis and patients usually get better with minimal treatment.

Bacterial meningitis is a rare, potentially fatal, bacterial infection of the brain and spinal cord. It is caused by bacteria (neisseria meningitidis) and is spread by direct close contact with discharges from the nose or throat of an infected person. (It is not spread by casual contact or by breathing the same air as someone who is infected.) Because it can be easily spread, however, meningococcal meningitis can cause outbreaks in a specific area, such as a college campus, where lifestyle factors – such as crowded living situations, bar patronage, smoking, irregular sleep patterns, and sharing of personal items – may increase risk. Approximately 100 to 125 cases of meningococcal disease occur on college campuses each year, resulting in 5 to 15 deaths.

Prevention and Treatment

Meningitis can be treated with a number of antibiotics, but treatment must begin as early as possible.

You can reduce the risk of contracting bacterial meningitis with good personal hygiene and avoiding sharing food, utensils, glasses, and other objects with someone who may have been infected.

A meningococcal vaccine provides protection against four of the five types of the bacteria that causes bacterial meningitis in the United States (types A, C, Y, and W-135). In persons aged 15-24, 70-80% of cases are caused by potentially vaccine-preventable strains.


The meningococcal vaccine is a safe and effective preventative measure against the bacteria. Adverse reactions are mile and infrequent, and may include pain at the injection site, headache, and fatigue. These respond to simple measures (ibuprofen or acetaminophen) and resolve spontaneously within a few days. Visit the American College Health Association website for more information about meningitis and the meningitis vaccine.

The vaccination is relatively inexpensive and may be available at no cost through public health clinics. Your health insurance policy may also cover the cost of pre-college immunizations.

Following the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – which reports that college freshmen living in dormitories are six times more likely to contract bacterial meningitis – we encourage the following groups be vaccinated:

  • All first-year students living in residence halls
  • Undergraduate students aged 25 or younger who wish to reduce their risk for the disease
  • Students with medical conditions that compromise immunity (e.g., HIV, absent spleen, antibody deficiency, chemotherapy, immune-suppressants)

Student Vaccination Act

On June 28, 2002, former Pennsylvania Governor Schweiker signed the College and University Student Vaccination Act. This Act states that all students, in order to live in college-owned housing, must either have had a meningitis vaccine or sign a document stating that they have been given information about meningitis and the vaccine and have not received the vaccine due to religious or other reasons. (If the student is under the age of 18 a parent must sign the document.)