There is this girl I really like, and I want to kiss her. However, I’m worried about getting meningitis, especially because I heard that some people can be carriers of the bacteria but not get sick. How likely is it to get meningitis from kissing? Should I just abstain from kissing, or is there anything we can do to reduce our risk?
—Kisses, Not Meningitis
“Neisseria meningitidis,” the organism that causes meningitis or meningococcal disease, is spread through oral or nasal secretions. Because of how the bacterium is transmitted, kissing, unfortunately, is indeed one of the ways in which meningitis can be spread. When kissing someone on the lips, you are very likely to come in contact with your partner’s oral secretions — even if it’s a dry kiss.
You are also correct in that some individuals can carry the bacterium without getting sick. In fact, 5-10 percent of the population may have the bacterium living in their nasal cavities or throats without any symptoms. However, healthy carriers are still contagious; other people who come in contact with the nasal or oral secretions of a carrier can still acquire the infection and develop meningitis. Furthermore, even in people who go on to develop the disease, there is a period of time — called the incubation period — between when they are infected and when they actually develop symptoms. For meningitis, the incubation period ranges from two to 10 days, and during this time, infected individuals may again spread the bacteria without knowing that they are infected.
Thus, as you can see from the discussion above, it is practically impossible to determine who may be carriers of the bacterium. Your best bet at preventing meningitis would be to avoid activities that might put you in contact with others’ oral or nasal secretions, which include:
—drinking from a communal source, such as a punch bowl
—sharing cups, utensils, lip balm or anything else that comes in contact with the lips or mouth
—(unfortunately) sharing kisses.
You can, however, reduce your risk by reducing your number of kissing partners. Also, remember that you can show affection for your special friend in ways other than a kiss on the lips. For example, you could give her a big hug, kiss her on the cheek or kiss her on the back of her hand.
Also, the meningitis B vaccine will help protect you from the strain of bacteria that has been responsible for all cases of meningitis in this outbreak. You can receive the first dose of this vaccine at the vaccine clinic this week, taking place from noon-8 p.m. in Frist Multipurpose Room (Level B) through Thursday.
Although we’ve been talking a lot about meningitis, remember that meningitis is not the only disease that can be spread by sharing kisses, cups, utensils and by coming in contact with nasal/oral secretions. Good hygiene practices, such as covering coughs and sneezes, as well as proper hand-washing, will also help protect you against other viruses and bacteria that cause colds, the flu, strep, herpes (cold sores) and gastroenteritis, among other illnesses.
So don’t let illness ruin your semester or winter break. Practice good hygiene, have fun and stay healthy!