Certain teens and young adults have a higher risk of getting meningococcal disease. College students, especially freshmen who live in dorms and military recruits, are at increased risk compared with others in this age group. It's important to know how to protect yourself because meningococcal disease can be deadly. Read on for more information from the American Academy of Pediatrics about this serious illness, safe and effective vaccines, and tips on how to stay healthy.
While it can strike anybody, the greatest risk is in individuals between 15 and 21 years of age. Also, students entering college and planning to live in dorms are at higher risk than other people of the same age. It's easy for infections to spread in crowded dorms or in enclosed areas where students often meet to smoke and drink alcohol.
Symptoms of Meningococcal Disease
The symptoms of meningococcal disease often are mistaken for other, less serious illnesses like the flu. Common symptoms include:
- Fever (usually above 101.4°F)
- A flat, pink to red to purple rash mainly on the lower arms and legs, including the hands and feet, with small bruises or bleeding under the skin
- Generalized muscle aches
- Sudden, severe headache
- Sensitivity to light
- Stiff neck along with headache and sensitivity to light (can signal the meningitis form of the illness and should never be ignored)
It's important to get medical treatment right away. Meningococcemia or meningitis can get worse very quickly, even within a few hours from the start of symptoms. If untreated, the infection can be fatal (up to 20% of teens die) or cause kidney failure, hearing loss, limb amputation, or lifelong problems with the nervous system.
Treatment for Meningococcal Disease
Meningococcal disease is treated with antibiotics. When given shortly after the start of symptoms, these antibiotics may prevent the disease from getting worse.
Because this infection spreads to others very easily, anyone who has been in contact with some diagnosed with meningococcal infection should contact their physician. In many cases, the individual who has been in contact with someone with meningococcal infection may be given an antibiotic to help prevent meningococcal disease. Ideally, this antibiotic should be given within 24 hours of exposure to the person with meningococcal disease.
The best protection from meningococcal disease is immunization with the meningococcal vaccine. It is recommended for individuals who are at a higher risk of infection. This includes adolescents and young adults, particularly those who are entering college and living in dorms. Safe and effective vaccines are available to prevent meningococcal disease caused by 4 of the 5 most common types of meningococcal bacteria found in teens. The currently recommended meningococcal vaccine for adolescents and young adults is the quadrivalent meningococcal conjugate vaccine. The vaccine provides protection against only about two thirds of the cases of meningococcal infections because there is one strain that is not included in the vaccine. Although mild side effects, like redness and swelling at the injection site or a slight fever, can occur from the vaccination, these are considered uncommon and usually go away on their own in a few days. Fainting can occur following any vaccine in adolescents and young adults. Adolescents and young adults who receive the meningococcal vaccine should sit for about 15 minutes after they receive the vaccine. Serious allergic reactions to the vaccine are extremely rare.
Who Should be Vaccinated?
- Adolescents are now recommended to get their first dose of meningococcal vaccine at 11 to 12 years of age and a booster dose at age 16 years.
- Adolescents who do not get their first dose at 11 to 12 years of age should still receive the meningococcal vaccine. If they are between 13 and 15 years of age at their first dose, they should get a booster at 16 to 18 years of age, and up to age 21 years. If they get their first dose at 16 years or older, a booster dose is not needed.
- There is no routine recommendation to receive the meningococcal vaccine for individuals older than 21 years.
- Since many college students travel during their college career, these students need to be aware that certain parts of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa or the Hajj have much higher rates of meningococcal disease. If students are traveling to these areas they should make sure that they have received their meningococcal vaccine in addition to understand any other health risks associated with travel, e.g. malaria, yellow fever, etc.
- Students who already received a meningococcal vaccine in the last 3 years don't need to be re-vaccinated, but they should check with their pediatrician to be sure.
Take Care of Yourself
If you are 11 to 12 years old, it's important that you see your pediatrician for your annual checkup. You may need a booster of other vaccines besides the one against meningococcal disease (such as the vaccines that prevent tetanus and diphtheria). At the same visit your pediatrician can give you advice about keeping healthy. Your pediatrician will also let you know about scheduling your booster dose.
If you are a student about to start college, here are some health tips.
- Reduce your risk of getting meningitis by staying away from smoking, drinking alcohol, excessive stress, and exposure to upper respiratory infections. Even if you don't smoke yourself, being in a smoking environment can still increase your risk of getting meningococcal disease.
- Strengthen your immune system by living a healthy lifestyle that includes enough sleep, exercise, and a balanced diet.
- 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.
- Remember that your pediatrician is available to answer any questions you may have about your health.