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FAQ: What you need to know about meningitis

HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 15:  People receive a free meningitis vaccine from Dr. Wayne Chen at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation pharmacy on April 15, 2013 in Hollywood, California. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation started free meningitis vaccines after a West Hollywood man died from the disease.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Free meningitis vaccine at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation's Hollywood pharmacy in 2013.

What is Meningococcal meningitis?

It's a bacterial form of meningitis, which is an infection that inflames the lining surrounding the brain and the spinal cord.  It's a serious medical condition that can cause brain damage, hearing loss and death.  
Viral and fungal forms of meningitis also exist, says Dr. Otto Yang, associate chief of infectious diseases and professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

How do you catch it?

The infection is transmitted through exposure to respiratory secretions — specifically from the saliva or nose mucus — of an infected person. You could catch it if a sick person sneezes directly on you, if you're exposed to their infected saliva through a kiss, or if you share eating utensils or drinks.

If your contact is limited to, say, a casual conversation with someone who may be infected, or you stood in line next to the infected person, you’re not likely to become infected, Yang says.

The incubation period is typically two to 10 days.

Who is at risk?

If you live in crowded quarters with many others — such as in a college dormitory or military housing — you could be at greater risk of catching it from an infected person in your midst.

Otherwise, the risk is generally low, unless you are "in close quarters or really intimately in contact with the person," Yang says. He adds that that even doctors who examine infected patients aren't considered to be at risk unless there's direct exposure to the patient's saliva or mucus.

Am I at greater risk if I'm a gay man?  

Health experts don't know why this meningitis outbreak is disproportionately affecting gay and bisexual men, but they have theories.

During the current 2016 outbreak, most of those sickened have been gay or bisexual men, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Since 2014, outbreaks of a particular strain of meningitis have been reported among gay and bisexual men in L.A. County, New York City and Chicago, according to the state health department. Similar outbreaks have also been reported recently in Europe.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms to watch out for are:

  • High fever
  • Severe headache with associated sensitivity to light
  • Stiffness of the neck
  • Generalized muscle ache
  • Low blood pressure
  • Confusion and/or altered mental state.

What if I've been in contact with someone who is now sick?

If you've shared close quarters with a known infected person and you think you may have been exposed, antibiotics will "markedly reduce the risk of getting it yourself," Yang says.

If I think I have become infected, what should I do?

You should seek immediate medical attention.

Should I get vaccinated?

The California Department of Public Health is now urging all gay and bisexual men in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties to get vaccinated against meningitis.