Posted: Jun 12, 2012 8:00 AM
Bacterial meningitis is a serious and potentially life-threatening infection that teens are at increased risk of contracting. Teens and young adults between the ages of 15-21 represent 15 percent of all cases -- and if left unrecognized and untreated, death and/or permanent disability follows. Know the signs, symptoms and ways to prevent this serious neurological infection.

What is bacterial meningitis?

Neisseria Meningitidis is the bacteria responsible for meningococcal meningitis, the type we worry most about in teens. It is easily spread by droplets from coughing, sneezing, kissing and sharing eating utensils with an infected person.

The bacteria enters through the respiratory tract then travels to the central nervous system, causing inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can quickly enter the blood stream resulting in rapid deterioration. This is a medical emergency.

What are the signs and symptoms?

In the early phase of bacterial meningitis, your teen may seem to have the flu with high fever (typically 101.4 degrees F or higher), muscle aches and headaches. However, these symptoms quickly progress into the typical triad of stiff neck, photophobia (sensitivity to light) and a severe headache.

If the infection progresses to the blood, what we call meningococcemia, a distinctive rash appears on the arms and lower legs. This rash consists of flat, red to purplish lesions. This is a sign of the life threatening form of meningococcal meningitis and is an absolute medical emergency.

Prevention is paramount

Vaccination against 4 of the 5 types of meningococcal bacteria remains the most effective preventive measure to date. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends routine vaccination with the meningococcal vaccine at age 11 and then a booster dose again at age 16. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is.

Other preventative measures include good hand washing, avoidance of sharing eating utensils and keeping your teen's immune system in tip top shape by encouraging a healthy diet, daily exercise, sleeping at least 8.5-9.5 hours per night, abstaining from smoking and drinking and being aware of the signs and symptoms of meningitis.

Dr. Mom’s bottom line^ Get your teen vaccinated and remember the triad of stiff neck, photophobia and a severe headache -- warranting an immediate medical evaluation to rule out meningitis.

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Topics: vaccines