What your college kid can contract in the dorm

January 18, 2018 | by Therese Gracey, M.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Moms

College life. It’s filled with friends, parties, sports — and hopefully some learning too. Living in the close quarters of a college dorm can be an amazing experience. It can also put college students at risk for some serious health issues.

Ever heard of meningitis? The scary kind of meningitis is caused by a type of bacteria. Some people carry these bacteria in their nose or throat and never get sick. But for others, the bacteria can cause serious, life-threatening infections of the bloodstream (meningococcemia) and/or the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis).

Meningitis is carried through large respiratory droplets or oral secretions, also known as spit. It’s often spread from person to person through lengthy or close physical contact — sneezing, coughing, sharing glasses or utensils, or kissing.  

Although the disease occurs in all age groups, adolescents and young adults between 15-21 years of age are at greater risk overall. College students living in crowded dorms, where it's easy for infections to spread, are even more vulnerable.

What’s scarier is that the illness can occur without warning. Symptoms of bacterial meningitis, which can appear quickly, include:

  • Sudden onset of fever
  • Sudden, severe headache
  • Stiff neck (often with headache and sensitivity to light)
  • Sensitivity to light
  • A flat, pink/red/purple rash on the skin (e.g., lower legs, feet, forearms, hands)
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Generalized muscle aches
  • Sleepiness
  • Confusion

Meningitis that is caused by a virus (viral meningitis) has similar symptoms but is typically not as serious.

It’s easy to mistake the early signs of meningitis for the flu. But if a high fever is accompanied by a severe headache and stiff neck, get to a doctor right away. Anyone who has been in contact with someone with meningitis should also contact their doctor.

Bacterial meningitis can be extremely dangerous and fast-moving. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, meningitis can get worse very quickly, even within a few hours from the start of symptoms. Later symptoms can be very serious, such as seizures or coma.

If your college kid suspects meningitis, it's important to get medical treatment right away. If untreated, the infection can lead to hearing loss, brain damage, kidney failure, or even the loss of a limb. Up to 15 percent of people who contract it die, usually within 24 hours.

This is one illness you don’t want to mess around with. Prevention is key.

Fortunately, many (but not all) forms of bacterial meningitis can be prevented by vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the vaccine for all 11 to 12 year olds, with a booster dose at age 16. Teens and young adults (16-23 year olds) may also be vaccinated.

Some colleges and universities started requiring all incoming students be vaccinated. There are two meningitis vaccines available to college students — one is universally recommended, and the other is only situationally recommended for group B meningitis. Ask your doctor about the appropriate vaccinations for your college kid.

The AAP offers health tips for college students:

  • Reduce your exposure to smoking, drinking alcohol, excessive stress, and upper respiratory tract infections. Even if you don't smoke, being in a smoking environment can still increase your risk of meningitis.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes enough sleep, exercise and a balanced diet, and staying hydrated with plenty of water.
  • Avoid sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and wash your hands often.
  • Get familiar with your college's student health services. Find out who to call or where to go if you get sick.
  • Contact your pediatrician with any questions you may have about your health.

Learn more about emergency services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.


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