What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and the coverings surrounding them. It can be caused by both bacteria and viruses. Commonly, meningitis may also used to refer broadly to bacterial meningococcal disease.

Signs and symptoms

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Neck stiffness
  • Discomfort when looking at bright lights
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Aching or sore muscles
  • Difficulty walking
  • General malaise
  • Moaning, unintelligible speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Collapse
  • Rash of red-purple pinprick spots or larger bruises.
  • Painful or swollen joints

Incubation period

The incubation period from exposure to display of symptoms ranges from 2-10 days, with symptoms usually appearing within 3-4 days.

What is the difference between bacterial meningococcal disease and viral meningitis?

Bacterial meningococcal disease, including meningococcal meningitis, usually has a more sudden onset and is a more severe illness than viral meningitis.

There is a vaccine for meningococcal disease, including meningitis, which covers about 80 percent of meningococcal infections.

Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics.

Meningococcal infection may cause:

  • meningitis- inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and the coverings that surround them
  • sepsis – an infection of the blood
  • Waterhouse-Friedrichsen Syndrome – adrenal gland failure
  • other conditions.

Viral meningitis is caused by several different viruses that are common in our environment. Most people who are in contact with those viruses will only get a common cold or diarrhea and vomiting, but will not get meningitis. Viral meningitis is an unusual immune response to a common virus that causes an individual’s brain to swell. The symptoms are similar to bacterial meningitis: fever, stiff neck, headache, nausea and vomiting, light sensitivity. The symptoms are often less severe than bacterial meningococcal illnesses. These common viruses are contagious through coughing, sneezing or saliva, or sometimes through inadequate hand washing after using the toilet.

Most viruses have no specific treatments but symptoms can be treated while the body’s immune system fights off the viral infection.

The meningitis vaccine does not protect against viral meningitis. When someone is exposed to a person who has viral meningitis, they may get a cold or an illness with diarrhea and vomiting, but it is unlikely that they will get meningitis.

Why should CSU students be concerned?

College students are at higher risk for bacterial meningococcal disease than the general population because of their age and behaviors. For example, college students are more likely to share beverages with each other and live in crowded spaces such as apartments and residence halls.

If you have been in contact with the saliva or nasal secretions of an infected person, talk to your medical provider about whether or not you need preventive treatment. Meningococcal disease is uncommon but very serious.

What can students and employees do?

Get vaccinated. Make sure you were vaccinated less than three years ago and, if not, get a booster. This vaccine loses effectiveness after a few years. Getting vaccinated can help break the spread of the bacteria that causes meningococcal disease from person to person.

Take steps to prevent the spread of the bacteria by limiting close, intimate contact with others and avoid sharing items that expose you to the saliva of others, such as sharing drinking containers, eating utensils or food, and pipes, cigarettes, bongs, joints or hookahs.

Anyone with symptoms of meningococcal disease should seek medical attention. If symptoms worsen, continue to seek medical attention even if you saw a doctor within several hours. During business hours, students can access the CSU Health Network by calling a meningococcal disease line at 970-491-2147 or visiting the Hartshorn Building.  After hours or in an emergency, students or employees should seek emergency care at local hospitals.