Allergies & Anaphylaxis – school age
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Dr Anna Maw
Consultant pediatrician at Cambridge University NHS Trust in the UK. A child doctor specializing in brain development and neurology. She has three children.
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Teenage care & health

Meningitis and sepsis in teenagers

Meningitis is a serious and sometimes fatal illness. Teenagers going to college are at particular risk. Early recognition and treatment give the best chance of a full recovery for your teenager.  It is important that both you and your teenager can recognise symptoms of a disease that has claimed the lives of many fit and healthy teenagers.  
In Short
If you suspect your teenager has meningitis – call 999 (UK) or 911 (USA) emergency or take them immediately to A&E or the ER. The symptoms are quite similar to flu, but trust your instincts and don't wait until the distinctive rash has appeared.

Make sure your teenager registers with a doctor when she arrives at college. Ask her to let you know straight away if she has a fever or is feeling ill.

Make sure that your teenager and her new friends look out for each other and let someone know if they are not well.

Get your teenager to educate themselves about meningitis so she can recognise the signs and symptoms and act fast.

Make sure your teenager is fully vaccinated before they go to college or university. Ask your doctor about the Men ACWY vaccine and the Men B vaccine if it hasn't been given already.

Why are teenagers and university or college students at increased risk of meningitis and sepsis?

Meningitis is an infection of the membranes covering the brain (meninges) and can be caused by a virus, a bacteria and even in rare cases amoeba.

A quarter of teenagers aged 15 – 19 years are carriers of meningococcal bacteria that can cause meningitis in the back of their throats; this is much higher than the general population – around one in ten in the UK.

Groups A, B, C, W and Y are the five main groups of meningococcal bacteria that commonly cause disease.

Teenagers can be carriers without becoming ill

Meningococcal bacteria are passed from person to person by kissing, coughing and sneezing. Increased social interaction in this age group means that the bacteria can be passed on more easily.

Teenagers tend to have social interaction with large numbers of the teenagers which facilitate transmission of the bacteria that can cause bacterial meningitis.

Since 2009, each year the cases of an aggressive strain of bacteria Meningococcal group W (Men W) have increased particularly amongst university students.

Why are freshers, freshmen and students in their first year at college or university at particular risk of bacterial meningitis?

Students can be more vulnerable to meningitis because they often live in crowded halls of residence on campus. There is a sudden mixing of people from lots of different locations so new students, in particular, are suddenly bombarded with viruses and bacteria that their immune systems are not familiar with. This leads to lots of students coming down with a range of infectious diseases, usually they are ultimately harmless viral infections, but the risk of bacterial meningitis is increased too.

One big problem is that the early vital symptoms of meningitis can be wrongly put down to a hangover or the ‘flu.’

Without concerned parents around new students may not get medical help or want to go to the trouble of speaking to a doctor. Instead, they may opt to try and ‘sleep it off.’

What can I do if my teenager is going off to college or university to protect them from bacterial meningitis?

It is important to educate your teenager about meningitis and make sure her health needs are supported when she leaves home for college or university.

Several things you can do include:

  • Download ‘Meningitis Now’ Free App onto her smartphone before she goes.
  • Make sure she registers with a doctor when she arrives on campus.
  • Make sure that your teenager and her new college friends look out for each other and say if in doubt, speak to you.
  • Get your teenager to read up on meningitis so she can recognise the signs and symptoms and is aware that quick medical attention is vital.
  • Make sure your teenager is fully vaccinated before she goes to college or university. A Men ACWY vaccine is available and will offer protection against the four groups of meningococcal bacteria A, C, W and Y. (This should be offered to your teenager via their family doctor in the UK in Year 13 of school as well as for mature students (aged 19 – 25).
  • Teenagers may also be vaccinated with a Group B meningococcal vaccine. Talk with your teenager’s doctor to find out more about Group B meningococcal vaccination, sometimes called Men B.

Vaccination does not protect against all types of meningitis as it can be caused by many bacterial and viral infections, make sure you know the signs and symptoms to look out for.

Trust your instincts

The video below focuses on babies, but the advice is the same for teenagers and the rash looks the same. If in doubt seek emergency medical help as every second counts. With the help of footage from Meningitis Research Foundation, our paediatric consultant, Dr Anna Maw, explains about meningitis and what action to take if you suspect the disease.

If your teenager has meningitis or sepsis she may get dangerously ill very quickly, even if she is generally strong and healthy. Trust your instincts, err on the side of caution and take them to A&E or the ER, even if it’s the middle of the night.

Symptoms of Meningitis

Symptoms of Meningitis include:

  • Fever or high temperature.
  • Very sleepy, maybe too sleepy to wake up.
  • Severe headache and sometimes dislike of bright lights.
  • Vomiting and sometimes diarrhoea.
  • Severe muscle pain.
  • Blotchy skin, getting paler or turning blue, especially at the extremities with cold hand and feet.
  • Extreme shivering.
  • A ‘Pinprick’ rash/marks or purple bruises on the body (if your teenager has dark skin this can be hard to spot but look on the palms of the hand, soles of the feet and inside of the mouth). Never wait for a rash, get medical help beforehand. A non-blanching rash means that meningitis has got to a stage that may be life threatening so it’s time to call an ambulance or get to the ER or A&E immediately.
    Cold hands and feet.
  • Convulsions/seizures.
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This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.