Freshers Flu – or meningitis?

flu-97679_640The first week back at university has reminded me the joys of student life – reuniting with friends, checking out the societies and clubs, figuring out timetables, and sharing germs. Although I was in only two days during freshers week, I find myself, like many others, hording packs of tissues and sniffling in the corner of rooms hoping no one notices. I believe I may have freshers flu. Runny nose, sore throat, and fatigue – these seem to only be a few of the many symptoms associated with freshers flu. It’s the perfect melting pot of situations for the spread of illness. All it takes is one person in a lecture room to sneeze or cough without covering their mouth, sending droplets of saliva containing the germs everywhere, and the whole room is at risk of contracting whatever they have.

Although, this got me thinking, isn’t flu season closer to winter than mid September? If it’s not influenza then what is it? So I did what every student nurse should not do, and consulted WebMD. This not only gave me little hope for my chances of survival, but lead me down a bit of a rabbit hole of all the illnesses that had similar symptoms. This quickly dropped me at the front door of meningitis, a virus that has currently gained quite the negative reputation with parents of younger children.

Because the media focuses on the horrible, usually late stage cases, that occur in younger children, the teens and young adult demographic gets left by the wayside. Although meningitis is rare, it can still be life threatening. According to the British Red Cross, students are at a higher risk due to the proximity of living arrangements. But what exactly is meningitis? The virus or bacteria causes inflammation of lining around the brain and spinal cord, with meningococcal bacteria being the main cause of meningitis in the UK. Although we are all susceptible to the various bacteria that cause meningitis, young adults are most prone to meningococcal bacteria.

The symptoms tend to be very similar to other illnesses students would expect to contract during freshers week (e.g. common cold, flu, hangover), but if missed can be much more devastating. Symptoms such as fevers, headaches, aches and pains, fatigue, and – more concerning – rashes, are common signs of the illness. The British Red Cross gives a step-by-step guide of first aid for meningitis if someone is suspected to have contracted it, which I strongly urge you to have a look at.

But what can we do to avoid contracting the illness? It’s simpler than you might think. We are all taught from a young age what to do if we have a cold, the same basic principles apply for meningitis. If the bacteria or virus doesn’t reach you, you cannot be infected right? So doing the following is always recommended:

  • Wash your hands with soap (especially after toilet use, coughing, sneezing, and blowing your nose).
  • Try not to touch your face with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with others (e.g. kissing, hugging, or sharing cups with people who are sick)
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze with a tissue, not  your hands.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces (e.g. keyboards, door handles, phones).
  • If you are sick, stay at home.

vaccination-296946_640Additionally, there has been a strong push by the UK government to encourage students to get vaccinated against meningitis. Since the introduction of vaccinations, the number of cases of meningitis has greatly decreased. Although there is an increase of MenW, a very aggressive strand of meningitis, the MenACWY vaccination introduced has shown a drop in cases of young people aged 15 – 19. Those who had the vaccine were not recorded contracting the strain, and it also prevents against three others (MenA,MenC, MenY).

As a future paediatric nurse, I often wonder how my patients would perceive my knowledge and if they would find it hypocritical if I told them to get vaccinated if I hadn’t been. I often get the feeling that there is a lot of “do as I say, not as I do” in nursing, but that’s a topic for another post. So keeping that in mind, I believe that I will be doing some more digging about the vaccine, and get it if I haven’t already (moving hasn’t made keeping track of vaccinations easy). I hope that fellow students consider doing the same.

So although we may not think much of freshers flu, other than a passing experience of university life, it is important to be aware that it may not always be a case of the sniffles. But like most bacterial and viral infections caught during freshers week, simple precautions such as hand washing and using common sense (please cover your mouth when you sneeze, it’s not a pretty sight), we may just survive freshers flu together.



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