When Ashley Lee got sick a month into her freshman year of college, she thought she had the flu. A cold was going around campus, and she had the same symptoms as many of her friends in the dorms at Indiana State University. But by the second day of her illness, she had developed a headache and was feeling weak. Her father got worried, and brought her to the hospital, where she continued to get worse, breaking out in a rash across her limbs and torso. Still, the doctors had no idea what was wrong. It wasn't until Ashley was transferred to a second hospital that she got her diagnosis: she had meningococcal meningitis.
That was just the start of Ashley's battle. The doctors prescribed antibiotics to fight the infection, but the disease had progressed significantly already. "I had kidney failure, my heart stopped twice, I had both feet amputated, over 20 surgeries, 3 fingers amputated, and 40 percent of my body is scarred and has skin grafting on it," Ashley tells us. "I was in the hospital for 3 months. It nearly took my life, and it should have. They told my parents to prepare for the worst but to hope for the best."
Thankfully, Ashley survived, and went on to graduate in August of 2011. Now she's on a mission: she wants to make sure that no one else has to suffer the way she does. She shared her story with Her Campus to help raise awareness of this deadly disease, and to help inform collegiettes everywhere about how to prevent meningitis.
For many collegiettes, meningitis is just one of the many vaccinations you have to check off your list before you head to life in the dorms, but it is actually one of the most serious and deadly diseases that college students are at risk for. Meningitis literally means "inflammation of the meninges," which is the lining around your brain and spinal cord. And as Ashley's story proves, it is as scary as it sounds. But we’re not here to scare you—we’re here to help! We found tons of information to keep you as informed as possible about meningitis. Read on to understand what it is, how to recognize it, and most importantly, how to prevent it.
What is Meningitis?
There are many different types of meningitis, but one of the most dangerous types is meningococcal meningitis, which is caused by the bacteria known as meningococcus (Neisseria meningitidis). This type of bacterial meningitis progresses rapidly and is highly contagious, making it one of the most serious diseases in a college dormitory setting. It's spread person-to-person, through respiratory and throat secretions. That means coughing, kissing, and sharing eating utensils are some of the easiest ways to spread meningitis!
Even so, the incubation period of meningitis is anywhere from two to ten days, meaning in that window of time your symptoms haven’t developed yet so you may be spreading it without even realizing. But once the infection makes its way to your meninges (reminder: "meninges" are the lining around your brain and spinal cord!), the inflammation there is serious, and the disease can move quickly. People infected with bacterial meningitis usually have flu-like symptoms, including a high fever, chills, and loss of energy. There are a few symptoms that can raise a red flag though, such as a rash, headache, and a stiff neck. And although meningitis can be treated with antibiotics, it's important to get treatment as soon as the symptoms begin.
Am I at Risk?
We spoke with Dr. Sharon Humiston, the Associate Director for Research at the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) and a Specialist in Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, to find out more about the risk that bacterial meningitis poses for college students. "One of the highest risk times is when you're a college freshman, moving into the dorms for the first time," Dr. Humiston tells us. The contagious nature of meningitis has long been a risk factor when there are many people living in close quarters, and it has caused local epidemics at boarding schools, military barracks, and college dormitories, she tells us. According to materials published by the IAC, the rate of invasive meningococcal disease among people aged 17-20 years of age is about twice that of the general U.S. population.
Thankfully, though, just because college students living in dorms are classified as an at-risk population by the Center for Disease Control, it doesn't mean the disease is inevitable. "The numbers are low, even if it's 3,000 cases per year, there are millions and millions of people who are susceptible for this," Dr. Humiston tells us. "Your individual risk is low."
What Will Happen if I Get Meningitis?
But just because the risk is relatively low, it's no reason to let your guard down. "The disease itself is unbelievably devastating," Dr. Humiston tells us. For those who do contract bacterial meningitis, it is an extremely serious disease. If the infection moves quickly, your body can go into shock or a coma within a few hours. Even with proper medical treatment, some patients die within several hours, according to research by the IAC. "About ten percent of pediatric patients who get meningococcal meningitis die from it," Dr. Humiston tells us.
Of the other ninety percent who contract meningitis, ten to twenty percent end up with lasting problems, including hearing loss, brain damage, kidney failure, or even limb amputation. "The bacteria causes the small blood vessels to spasm, so you see the fingers and toes turning purple, and sometimes people end up with full limb amputations," Dr. Humiston tells us. "Some of the really sad cases, it's not just the blood vessels of your arms and legs, it can be your face, it can be your nose."
For Ashley, the disease has been particularly devastating. "I never thought that one day I'd be looking down and I wouldn't be able to see my own two feet," She tells us. I never thought that I would be losing three of my right hand fingers. It just turns your life upside down."