Meningitis demands respect; grave implications for the brain
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My son completed his freshman year in college. He stayed for summer school because he plans to graduate in three years. At the beginning of the summer term, one student in his dormitory came down with meningitis. I thought he should immediately come home. My husband said the university knows how to deal with this, and he thought our son should stay unless the university says otherwise. Our son was put on medicine. No other cases have developed in three weeks. Is he out of danger? — L.B.
“Meningitis” is a panic word and not without justification. The meninges are the coverings of the brain and spinal cord. Their infection has grave implications for the brain. In the years before antibiotics, meningitis was tantamount to a death sentence or permanent neurological damage. With prompt antibiotic treatment, most cases are now successfully resolved, and lasting damage to the brain, while possible, usually is prevented.
In your son’s setting, the bacterium most likely to have been the cause of the student’s illness is one called meningococcus (muh-NING-o-KOK-uss). It can be spread by droplets from an infected person to close contacts. For that reason, antibiotic treatment of close contacts is advised, and that was done for your son.
The antibiotic is especially urged for contacts who have not had the meningococcal vaccine. The vaccine usually is given at age 11 or 12, or anytime before age 18, and college-bound students who are going to live in a dormitory are advised to receive it if they haven’t already been immunized.
With no new cases of meningitis having developed in the past three weeks and with the antibiotic prophylaxis (prevention) your son got, the danger for him is little to none.
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: When you say to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day, do you mean that all fluids count, like orange juice, coffee and pop? — L.T.
I said to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day? I don’t think I said that. I don’t believe it’s necessary. Water doesn’t flush poisons out of the body. Drink when you’re thirsty, and just about any kind of fluid will do, including coffee.
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Next month, I am scheduled for a hysterectomy. The operation is being done because of my fibroids. Should I have my ovaries taken at the same time to prevent ovarian cancer? I am 48. I figure I’ll be entering menopause soon, and I might as well do so now. — F.C.
Why would you want to have your ovaries removed, even though you are nearing menopause? You still have three more years of estrogen production if you keep them. Those three years keep your bones strong.
I don’t advise you to have your ovaries removed unless you are at high risk of ovarian cancer — like having a strong family history of it. I doubt if your surgeon will go along with your idea. It’s not a good one.
The booklet on cervical cancer and Pap smears presents these two topics in detail. Readers can order a copy by writing: Dr. Donohue — No. 1102, Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Enclose a check or money order for $4.75 U.S./$6 Can. with the recipient’s printed name and address. Please allow four weeks for delivery.
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: In two weeks, I have to have a physical exam and lab tests for insurance. I know one of the tests is for detection of nicotine.
I had been a two-pack-a-day smoker. I gave up cigarettes three months ago. How long does it take to get nicotine out of the system? — C.K.
The time it takes nicotine to clear the body depends on how many cigarettes are smoked each day. For someone with a two-pack-a-day habit, it would take a full week with no smoking.
You haven’t smoked in three months. Your test will be clean.
Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from

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