Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. It is typically caused by bacteria or viruses. Viral meningitis is relatively common and far less serious than bacterial meningitis. It often remains undiagnosed because its symptoms can be similar to those of the common flu. Bacterial meningitis is rare but can be life threatening if not treated immediately.
Children of any age can contract meningitis, but those living in close quarters, like teens and college students, can spread the disease more easily. Meningitis is spread by tiny drops of fluid from the throat and nose of someone who is infected. The drops may become airborne when the person coughs, laughs, talks or sneezes. They then can infect others when people breathe them in or touch the drops and then touch their own noses or mouths. Sharing food, drinking bottles/glasses, eating utensils, tissues or towels can transmit infection as well. Casual contact at school with someone who has meningitis usually will not transmit the infectious agent.
Viral and bacterial meningitis tend to cause flu-like symptoms, such as fever and runny nose, and may be so mild that the illness goes undiagnosed. However, since bacterial meningitis can be very serious, it is important to recognize the symptoms and obtain prompt medical treatment. Symptoms can include the following: fever, lethargy, headache, sensitivity to light, stiff neck and rashes.
It is important to note that the meningococcal vaccine for the prevention of meningococcal bacterial meningitis is a safe and highly effective vaccine required for all students entering sixth grade who attend school in Philadelphia.