Since your baby’s birth, you have faithfully followed vaccine recommendations for everything from the HepB vaccine to DTaP, flu shots to the MMR vaccine, HPV and everything in between. As a parent, you feel pretty good about protecting your child from preventable diseases with age appropriate vaccinations, and now as they enter their mid-teens, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Not so fast. If your teen hasn’t had the meningococcal conjugate vaccine and the meningococcal B vaccine, they are not protected from meningitis, a serious and sometimes life-threatening disease that can strike, seemingly out of nowhere.
For the facts about meningitis and how parents can protect their children and teens, Well-Being turned to KidsHealth from The Nemours Foundation.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. While people of any age can get meningitis, because it can spread easily among those living in close quarters, teens, college students, and boarding-school students are at higher risk for infection.
When dealt with quickly, meningitis can usually be treated successfully. So it’s important to get routine vaccinations, know the signs of meningitis, and get medical help right away if you think that your child has the illness.
Most cases of meningitis are caused by bacteria or viruses, but some incidences can be due to certain medicines or illnesses. Many of the bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis are fairly common and cause other routine illnesses. Meningitis is spread like most other common infections – when someone who has been infected touches, kisses, coughs or sneezes on someone who isn’t infected.
Bacterial Meningitis is rare, but can be serious and even life threatening if it isn’t treated right away. The bacteria can spread to the meninges from a severe head trauma or a severe local infection, such as a serious ear infection or sinus infection. The fact is, many different kinds of bacteria can cause bacterial meningitis.
Viral meningitis is more common and usually is less serious. Many of the viruses that can cause meningitis are common, including those responsible for colds, diarrhea, cold sores, and the flu.
According to KidsHealth, Meningitis symptoms vary, depending on a person’s age and the cause of the infection. The first symptoms can come on quickly or start several days after someone has had a cold, diarrhea, vomiting, or other signs of an infection. Symptoms among older kids and teens include:
• lack of energy
• sensitivity to light
• stiff neck
• skin rash
• jaundice (a yellowish tint to the skin)
• stiffness of the body and neck
• a lower-than-normal temperature
Bacterial meningitis can be very serious. So if you see symptoms or think that your child could have meningitis, it’s important to see the doctor right away.
If meningitis is suspected, the doctor will order tests, probably including a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to collect a sample of spinal fluid. This test will show any signs of inflammation and whether the infection is due to a virus or bacteria.
Most cases of viral meningitis end within 7 to 10 days. Some people might need to be treated in the hospital, although kids usually can recover at home if they’re not too ill. Treatment to ease symptoms includes rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain medicine.
If bacterial meningitis is diagnosed – or even suspected – doctors will start intravenous antibiotics as soon as possible. Fluids may be given to replace those lost to fever, sweating, vomiting, and poor appetite.
Proper and timely immunization goes a long way toward helping to prevent meningitis. The Hib, measles, mumps, polio, and pneumococcal vaccines can protect against meningitis caused by those germs.
Kids should get the meningococcal conjugate vaccine when they’re 11 or 12 years old, with a booster shot at age 16 and the meningococcal B vaccine at ages 16 – 18. Those older than 11 who haven’t been vaccinated also should be immunized, particularly if they’re going off to college, boarding school, camp, or other settings where they’ll live in a communal setting with others.
It’s important for kids to be reminded to wash their hands well and often, particularly before eating and after using the bathroom. Adults who work closely with kids, as in a daycare or educational setting, should also be mindful of practicing good hand hygiene. Additionally, it’s a good idea to avoid close contact with someone who’s obviously ill and don’t share food, drinks, or eating utensils.
In some cases, doctors may give antibiotics to anyone who has been in close contact with a person who has bacterial meningitis to help prevent infection.
KidsHealth recommends that you seek medical care right away if you think that your child has meningitis or you see symptoms such as vomiting, headache, tiredness or confusion, neck stiffness, rash, and fever. If your child has come into contact with someone who has meningitis, talk to your doctor about whether preventive medicine is recommended.
Sources: KidsHealth from the Nemours Foundation, KidsHealth.org; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For a complete schedule of immunizations by age, visit https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/immunization-chart.html.