Doctor’s Orders: Fending off meningitis

Several cases of meningitis have been reported on college campuses this week, at Princeton University and University of California-Santa Barbara. Here in South Florida, a case was confirmed at Deerfield Park Elementary school. While FIU has not had any reported cases, Dr. Saara Schwartz, medical director at Student Health Services, explains what the outbreak means for students and how to prevent contracting the dangerous infection.

Dr. Saara Schwartz

Dr. Saara Schwartz, medical director at Student Health Services

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. Most cases are caused by viruses, but bacterial infections can lead to meningitis, the most serious being Meningococcal meningitis.

Meningococcal meningitis is cause by the bacteria Neisseria Meningitidis. In the United States more than one third of the population carries this bacteria in their nose but very few people develop disease.

What are the symptoms?

Signs and symptoms include fever, headache, stiff neck, confusion or altered mental status, lethargy, malaise, seizures, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. The triad of fever, stiff neck and altered mental status warrants immediate medical attention.

How do you contract meningitis?

The illness is not spread through casual contact, such as being in the same room with someone. Instead, it is spread by breath secretions via coughing, sneezing, kissing, or sharing cups or utensils.

What should I do to prevent myself from getting meningitis? 

  1. Wash your hands: Careful hand-washing is important especially before eating, after using the toilet, spending time in a crowded public place or petting animals. Wash hands vigorously, covering both the front and back of each hand with soap for 20 seconds and rinse thoroughly under running water.
  2. Don’t share: Avoid sharing drinks, foods, cups, straws, eating utensils, lip balms or toothbrushes with anyone else.
  3. Stay healthy: Maintain your immune system by getting enough rest, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  4. Cover your cough: When you need to cough or sneeze, be sure to cover your mouth and nose. Face masks are available at the clinics on campus.
  5. Get vaccinated: College students living in residence halls are at an increased risk of getting meningitis due to very close contact with others. If you haven’t been vaccinated already, make an appointment with SHS to do so.

What should I do if I think I have meningitis?

Seek medical care immediately! See your doctor, come to Student Health Services or get to a hospital. Meningitis is a serious infection that needs to be treated quickly.

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