How to Protect Yourself Against Meningitis and Smoke Exposure

How to Protect Yourself Against Meningitis and Smoke Exposure

Outbreaks of infection and wildfires can cause lasting damage to your health.

Q: My son is enrolled at a small college in Vermont and I heard that there was an outbreak of meningitis on East Coast college campuses. He’s had a lot of his vaccinations, but what is available to protect him from this? —Sharon S., Syracuse, NY

A: We are glad you are asking—all parents of teens should talk to their kids’ doc about getting the MenB vaccine, which has been available since 2014. The preferred age for vaccination is 16 to 18, but anytime after that is fine too.

MenB is the strain of meningitis that’s recently been spreading through some college campuses. The colleges affected (so far) are Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, UMass-Amherst, and on the other coast, Oregon State University.

If your son is up on his vaccinations, he’s probably protected against the most common strains of meningitis (A, C, W and Y). If not, then he should arrange to get those vaccinations, as well as the one covering B. You can discuss the best schedule for that with his doctor.

The good news is that cases of meningitis in the US are at record lows. The bad news is that between 10 and 15 percent of the cases that do happen turn out to be fatal, and up to 20 percent cause the infected person lasting disabilities.

It’s worth knowing that the MenB vaccine does trigger mild side effects, such as soreness, tiredness, fatigue, headache, fever or chills, nausea and diarrhea, in about half of folks who get it. These reactions can hang around for a few days; they generally disappear completely within a week—a small price to pay.

Q: I heard that smoke from wildfires is worse for you than cigarette smoke. We’re being blanketed with it, between the 600 fires in British Columbia and the hundreds throughout the US West Coast, plus Nevada, Idaho and Montana. What’s the best way to limit exposure and still have a life? —Jason P., Seattle, WA

A: First of all, cigarette smoke is a lot worse for you than the smoke that you are experiencing in the air over Seattle—and that’s generally true for the millions of folks in the US and Canada who are affected. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t harmful chemicals and particulate matter in the wildfire smoke. There may be large flakes of ash as well as microscopic bits of residue from burnt materials. Those tiny particles also pick up other things floating through the air (sea salt in your area, Jason), and those microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs along with the pollutants.

Particulate matter can increase your blood pressure and heart rate, and that ups the risk for heart attack and stroke. In addition, there are toxic chemicals like nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde and benzene in the wildfire smoke. That’s why smoky air is especially risky for people with respiratory diseases, asthma or heart problems.

The firefighters are also at increased risk: It’s our understanding that a lot of them are put on three-hour shifts to minimize their risk of exposure and they wear sophisticated ventilators.

As for you and your neighbors . . . if you opt for a mask when you go outside, the CDC recommends a NIOSH-approved N95 or a P100 respirator. These remove 90 to 95 percent of pollutants. Still, check for air quality alerts (there’s an app for that) before you head out and don’t let a mask lull you into a false sense of security.

Stick with indoor exercise—no outdoor aerobics in smoky air! And keep an eye on elderly neighbors to make sure they are well, and if stuck inside, they’re fed and hydrated. When the seasons change and you get some rain, the air should return to normal. If you’ve been smart about using masks and avoiding prolonged exposure to the smoke, you should not experience any lasting damage.

Medically reviewed in April 2020.

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