Imagine getting an alert from your gym that a member has died of meningitis, an infection that can be passed via close contact. You'd probably be worried, to say the least.
This is what happened after 48-year-old Sevin Philips, a frequent visitor to a SoulCycle studio in Larkspur, California, died of bacterial meningitis on January 7. Out of an abundance of caution, health officials have since contacted more than 200 of his fellow riders who may have been exposed; but they are being told not to panic, according to NBC Bay Area news.
So what is meningitis, exactly—and how contagious is it really?
Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes covering the spinal cord and brain. There are many possible causes, including viruses, fungi, parasites, drugs, and cancer. But the type that frequently appears in the news is a bacterial form called meningococcal meningitis, caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis.
“This can be horrifically serious,” says Aileen Marty, MD, professor of infectious diseases at the Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. It can cause brain damage and hearing loss. In the worst cases, it can lead to death in just a few hours.
RELATED: How to Fight 14 Classroom Germs
“Meningitis is not uncommon,” says Dr. Marty. “But it’s especially common in populations that are living in tight quarters, like the military or college students." (Many universities recommend the meningococcal vaccine if you live in student housing.)
That's because bacterial meningitis is transmitted via close interaction. But it's unlikely that working out next to someone who's infected would put you at risk, as health officials told SoulCycle regulars in Larkspur.
You need to be in contact with an infected person's saliva, which can happen when you live together, for example, or kiss, says Jessica MacNeil, an epidemiologist in the Division of Bacterial Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The bacteria that cause meningococcal disease require prolonged (lengthy) or very close, person-to-person contact in order to spread,” she explained in an email to Health.
It's not like catching a cold or the flu, she added: “The bacteria are not spread by casual contact, being in the same room as someone who is sick, or breathing the air where a person with meningococcal disease has been."
And the bacteria can't live outside the body for long. So you can't catch the disease by touching surfaces like a spin bike, a keyboard, or a doorknob that someone who is sick has also touched, MacNeil said.
RELATED: 15 Diseases Doctors Often Get Wrong
The classic symptoms are sudden fever, headache, and a stiff neck. "When we say headache, we mean it's among the worst headaches that somebody's had in their life. And with the stiff neck, they really can't move their neck, or they can't, for example, touch their chin to their chest," MacNeil said. Other symptoms include nausea and vomiting, confusion, exhaustion, and sensitivity to light. It can be mistaken for a bad flu, says Dr. Marty. But because meningococcal meningitis is so serious, you should seek treatment immediately.
As for protecting yourself, the best defense is washing your hands, says Dr. Marty. “Hand washing is unbelievably underrated and so important. But people don’t know how to do it,” she says.
Here's a quick refresher: Under running water, scrub your hands (get in all the crevices!) for at least 20 seconds. Rinse, and then dry with a clean towel. Wash after you go to the bathroom, before you eat, and whenever you're around someone who’s sick.