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Meningitis is a serious infection whereby the lining around your brain and spinal cord becomes inflamed. There are two types of meningitis – viral and bacterial. Bacterial meningitis can be life-threatening. Viral meningitis is usually not but can still leave you some long-term after-effects. There are ways to keep your immune system healthy and prevent the disease and its severity, so while it can be serious, it doesn’t have to be fatal.
While most cases of viral meningitis are seen in children under the age of 5, bacterial meningitis is common in people under 20 years of age such as teenagers and college students.1 These two groups are at particular risk due to the way in which meningitis is spread. The infection passes through close and prolonged contact and is spread through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions from carriers. Kissing, sneezing or coughing on someone, as well as living in close quarters with them, puts you at a higher risk. Preventing meningitis is therefore particularly important for these groups.
Typical symptoms of meningitis can include a fever with cold hands and feet, headache, muscle pain and vomiting or diarrhoea. Babies and young children may also appear unsettled, drowsy or irritable.
Treatment for bacterial and viral meningitis differ but both may require the same initial tests to confirm the diagnosis. Bacterial meningitis will usually need to be treated in hospital with antibiotics, fluids and oxygen being needed, whereas viral meningitis tends to improve on its own and can often be treated at home.
There is the possibility of being vaccinated against meningitis2 but there are additional ways for parents to protect their children from meningitis besides vaccination too. These include not allowing them to put shared toys in their mouths, not sharing food or drinks and practicing good hygiene, such as regular hand washing.
Teaching children and teenagers to take care of their body is one of the best ways to help prevent many illnesses, including meningitis. Good health starts within and studies have shown that a healthy and balanced diet can help to strengthen the immune system.3 This is especially important for teenagers at universities who might be responsible for their own cooking for the first time. They may not be eating well or making the best choices to ensure their diet contains all the necessary micronutrients. They may be lacking vitamins A and D as well as antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, have been shown to be helpful in maintaining health.4
Antioxidants can be found in fresh vegetables and fruits.5 Citrus fruits, red peppers, green leafy vegetables, broccoli and kiwi are all high in Vitamin C, which contributes to the normal function of the immune system.
The Omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA contribute to the maintenance of normal blood pressure and have been shown to help protect the immune system and decrease inflammation, which is one of the side effects of meningitis.6 Foods high in DHA and EPA include oily fish like salmon, tuna and trout, as well as mussels, oysters, vegetable oils and flaxseed oil.
A strong immune system is key to helping protect your child or teenager against meningitis and studies on probiotics and immune health, have shown that probiotics are beneficial in strengthening the immune system.7 Good sources of probiotics to include as part of a healthy diet can be found in foods like yoghurt, tempeh and sauerkraut.8
According to a study published in Experimental Biology and Medicine in 2014, Vitamin B6 has been shown to support the immune system, as well as the nervous system, making it harder for meningitis to develop.9 Foods rich in Vitamin B6 include pork, poultry, fish, eggs, wholegrain cereals and brown rice, should be eaten in abundance for a healthy immune system that is better able to prevent meningitis.
Unhealthy nutrition can promote inflammation in the body.10 As inflammation is a major factor in meningitis, it’s recommended to talk to children and young people about the harmful effects of junk food and sugar and the importance of making healthy choices to protect themselves.
Both rest and movement also form part of a healthy lifestyle, and children should get plenty of exercise and rest to ensure that their body’s reserves are in top condition.11
A doctor should always be consulted if meningitis is suspected or you or your family have been in contact with a sick person, but it’s better of course to do what you can to avoid becoming unwell in the first place. Following good rules of hygiene, like those listed below, is one of the best ways to prevent infections with germs that can cause meningitis:
• Washing your hands for 20 seconds after social situations, before meals, and after using the toilet. It is also wise to wash hands after a shopping outing, going to a restaurant, or riding on public transport, because the spread of illness can often happen when we put our hands to our mouths and face• Don’t share personal items like drinks, food, lip balm, toothbrushes• Teach your teenager to not be physically intimate with someone who appears sick, or during a meningitis epidemic at their school or university• Cough and sneeze into your elbow (or a tissue) and then promptly wash your hands
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