Meningitis is an infection of the fluid of a person’s spinal cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain. Meningitis is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without treatment. Bacterial meningitis can be severe and may result in learning disabilities, hearing loss, brain damage or death.

Anyone can get meningitis, but it is most common in infants less than one year, international travelers and persons with certain high risk medical conditions. College freshmen, especially those who live in dormitories, have a slightly increased risk of getting meningitis.

High fever, headache and stiff neck are common symptoms of meningitis. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, confusion and sleepiness. Symptoms can develop over several hours or a few days.

Some forms of meningitis are contagious. Bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory fluids and throat secretions. None of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as the common cold or flu. They are not spread by casual contact or breathing the air where a person with meningitis had been.

Early diagnosis and treatment are important. If symptoms occur you should see the doctor immediately. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment. Bacterial meningitis can be treated with a number of effective antibiotics. It is important that treatment be started early in the course of the disease.

Menningococcal vaccine is available and can prevent 4 types of meningitis. Menningococcal vaccine cannot prevent all types of the disease, but helps to protect people who may become sick if they don’t get the vaccine.

Menningococcal vaccine is not routinely recommended for most people. Those who should get the vaccine include US military recruits and international travelers. The vaccine is also recommended for college freshmen, especially those living in dormitories. Parents and students should be educated about the availability of a safe and effective vaccine that can decrease their risk of disease.