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California State University, Long Beach
Health Resource Center, Student Health Services
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What is meningitis?

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, meningitis is an infection of the fluid in a person's spinal cord as well as the fluid that surrounds the brain. Sometimes this disease is called spinal meningitis, and is usually caused by a virus or a bacterium. Viral meningitis is usually less serious and can resolve without any specific type of treatment. Bacterial meningitis can have very severe outcomes, including brain damage, hearing loss, limb amputations, or learning disabilities (1, 2).

The American College Health Association states that the bacterium that causes meningococcal disease is called Neisseria meningitides and is the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in older children and young adults in the United States. Approximately 1,400 to 3,000 Americans each year are infected with this disease and about 150 to 300 of them will die from it(2).

Adolescents and young adults account for nearly 30 percent of all cases of meningitis in the United States. College campuses report that about 100 to 125 persons are infected with meningitis annually, and about five to 15 students will die as a result. “Evidence shows approximately 70 to 80 percent of cases in the college age group are caused by serogroup C, Y, or W-135, which are potentially vaccine-preventable” (1).

How is it spread?

Meningitis is highly contagious and the progression of the disease is rapid. It is spread through person-to-person contact and through air by droplets from coughing and sneezing. The bacteria can also be transmitted through direct contact with an infected person, such as oral contact with shared items like cigarettes or drinking glasses, and through kissing. Freshmen living in dormitories are up to six times more likely to get the disease than those not living in such close quarters (1-3).

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms can be similar to the flu or other illnesses that cause a fever. This can make meningitis difficult to diagnose. These symptoms can include:

  • High fever
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Rash
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Discomfort looking into bright lights

If you notice these symptoms in yourself, your friends or others, contact your college health center or local hospital. These symptoms can come on suddenly and be very severe (1, 2, 3).

How is meningitis diagnosed?

A sample of spinal fluid must be obtained to confirm meningitis. This sample is collected by conducting a lumbar puncture or “spinal tap”, in which a needle is inserted into the lower back where spinal fluid is accessible. The type of bacteria or virus must be identified in order to properly treat the patient (2,3).

Treatments for meningitis

Bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics. Early treatment with antibiotics is important in order to reduce the risk of serious outcomes (1, 2, 3). There is no cure for viral meningitis. Bed rest, fluids, and pain relievers are needed to help with recovery.

How can I prevent meningitis?

There are two vaccines in the United States that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and have been available since 1981. One of the vaccines, MenactraT, is recommended/required for college students and others who may live with many people in close quarters (e.g., military, prisons, dormitories, etc.).

The vaccine is safe and effective against four of the five types of bacteria responsible for meningitis and lasts about three to five years. Reactions to this vaccine include pain and redness at the site of injection and/or a mild fever) (1,2,3).  You can receive the vaccine from your primary care provider or at your college health center. Call 562-985-4609 to get more information.


1. American College Health Association. (2006). Meningitis on College Campus. Retrieved from

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2006). Meningococcal Disease. Retrieved from

3. National Meningitis Association. (2012). Meningitis on Campus: Don’t Wait. Vaccinate. Retrieved from