ILWACO, Wash. - Four football players at Ilwaco High School have viral meningitis, the Pacific County Health Department reports.

One player was diagnosed Thursday, with the diagnosis confirmed by a spinal tap, and three other players were hospitalized Saturday. All have been released from the hospital, county Health Director Kathy Spoor said Monday afternoon.

An undetermined number of other students and other residents of the Long Beach Peninsula have come down with symptoms which include severe headaches, stiff necks and nausea.

"It's really hard to pinpoint the number," Spoor said.

All school-related events were canceled during the weekend because of the illnesses. A football game Monday was rescheduled to ward off the spread of the disease, said Lisa Nelson, principal of Ilwaco Junior and Senior High School, today.

Classes at the school, which has grades seven through 12 and 580 students, were held as scheduled Monday.

A total of 160 high school students were absent Monday, but most of them were not sick and were being kept home by their parents as a precaution, said spokeswoman Kate Lynch of the state Department of Health. About 35 of the 160 absent students reportedly are ill, Lynch said.

School officials advise students to stay home if they are feeling ill. Several students reported sore throats from a flu going around. Sore throats are not typically associated with meningitis, Nelson said.

Those feeling well should come to school, so the two groups are separate.

"That's the best way to beat this thing," she said.

The disease is often spread through saliva, Nelson said. Football players were particularly at risk when they alternate between mouth guards and shared water spigots. Football practice took place Monday, but players were required to use a hand cleanser before drinking water.

Nelson said she hopes the worst of it is over, although the virus does take a few days to run its course.

Although meningitis sounds threatening, Spoor said the viral variety is mild to moderate in nature. "The kids who've been diagnosed are doing well, they're recovering," she said. "It typically runs its course in five to seven days."

Some physicians have diagnosed other athletes with the viral disease without performing a spinal tap, which is usually done to find signs of meningitis. "Different practitioners are diagnosing based on the fact that (the athletes) were exposed," she said.

Viral meningitis is less serious than bacterial meningitis, which can be fatal, Spoor said.

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