What Is Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal disease is a rare but very serious bacterial infection that causes meningitis, which is a swelling of the protective membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. Meningococcal disease can also cause bloodstream poisoning , which is called meningococcal sepsis or meningococcemia. The terms meningitis and meningococcal disease are often used interchangeably.

How Serious Is Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal disease is extremely serious. Even with rapid treatment, 10 to 15 out of every 100 people who get meningococcal disease will die. Up to 1 in 5 people who survive meningococcal disease will have long-term disabilities, including limb amputations, deafness, brain damage and issues with kidney function.

Who Is at Risk?

Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but some people have a higher risk for it. Those at a higher risk include adolescents and young adults, infants and people living in crowded settings like college dorms or military barracks.

What Are the Symptoms?

Early symptoms of meningococcal disease can be like the flu or other viral infections, but the symptoms can progress quickly, and meningococcal disease can be deadly within a matter of just hours. The symptoms vary depending on the illness.

Symptoms of Meningitis

  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Seizures
  • Severe headaches
  • Stiff neck

Symptoms of Meningococcemia

  • Pale or mottled skin, purplish rash
  • Unusual cold hands and feet
  • Breathing fast & breathless
  • Limb, joint & muscle pain

Symptoms of Both

  • Very sleepy & vacant
  • High fever
  • Confused & delirious
  • Vomiting
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Click to Enlarge

Symptoms in infants and babies: Some of the symptoms most commonly associated with meningitis, such as high fever, stiff neck or headache, might not appear or might be difficult to detect in infants or babies.

Symptoms can vary and may come on suddenly and/or severely. Please contact your healthcare provider with questions.

What Is the Treatment?

Meningococcal disease is treated with antibiotics. Treatment must begin early to be effective, but unfortunately it is not easy for healthcare professionals to identify and diagnose the infection in its early stages. Even if treatment is started as soon as possible, it might not prevent death or serious long-term complications such as hearing loss, brain damage, kidney disease or limb amputations.

When someone is diagnosed with meningococcal disease, those who’ve been in close contact with that person are given antibiotics as a preventive measure. This usually includes people living in the same household or anyone who comes into direct contact with a patient’s saliva, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Can Meningococcal Disease Be Prevented?

Vaccination is the best protection against meningococcal disease. There are two types of vaccines available in the United States: MenACWY and MenB. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a dose of MenACWY for every adolescent at age 11 to 12 with a second dose at age 16. Teens and young adults from 16 to 23 years of age may also get the MenB vaccine. The National Meningitis Association recommends that parents and teens talk to their healthcare provider about both vaccines.

Meningococcal vaccination is also recommended for people outside of these ages with certain medical conditions, travel plans or jobs. You can read more on the CDC website.

What Do Those Letters Mean—A, B, C, W and Y?

Meningococcal bacteria are categorized into serogroups called A, B, C, W and Y.

Serogroup B accounts for about one-third of U.S. cases and is the most common serogroup in adolescents. Since 2011, every known outbreak of meningitis on a U.S. college campus has been caused by MenB.  While MenB is currently the most common form, symptoms of meningococcal disease and risk of death are the same across serogroups.

How Is Meningococcal Disease Spread?

Meningococcal disease is contagious. The bacteria that causes it is spread by people sharing respiratory secretions by close contact, such as kissing or coughing. Meningococcal bacteria cannot live outside the body for very long, which means the infection is not as easily spread as a cold virus.

About one in 10 people carry meningococcal bacteria in their nose or throat without showing any signs or symptoms of the disease. These people can still transmit the bacteria to others who can become ill.

Can Other Infections Cause Meningitis?

Yes. Meningitis is most often caused by one of several types of bacteria or a virus. It can also be caused by injuries, cancer, certain drugs and sometimes other types of infectious, such as a fungus.

Bacterial meningitis is the most likely to be fatal. Meningococcal disease is the most common type of meningitis in U.S. children age 2 to 18. Other bacteria that can cause meningitis include Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcal disease) and Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib Disease), both of which have vaccines to protect against them.

Viral meningitis has similar symptoms to bacterial meningitis but is not as deadly. There is no specific treatment available for viral meningitis, but most patients fully recover.

Fungal meningitis is rare in the United States and is not contagious (it does not spread between people). It develops mainly in people with weakened immune systems when a fungus spreads from somewhere else in their body to the brain or spinal cord. Fungal meningitis is treated with anti-fungal medications

Educational Resources

General Information

Beyond The Science: Putting a Face on Meningococcal Disease
A new report that details the impact of meningococcal disease on real people including survivors, families, healthcare professionals and educators.

Fact Sheet: Meningococcal Disease and Prevention
An overview of meningococcal disease, including causes, symptoms, and prevention

Graphic: Meningococcal Disease: Two Most Common Manifestations and Their Symptoms
An illustration outlining the signs and symptoms of the two most common forms of meningococcal disease: meningitis and meningococcemia

Graphic: Meningococcal Disease Symptoms
Pictures of the many symptoms associated with two of the most common forms of meningococcal disease

Graphic Timeline: Progression of Meningococcal Disease
A graphic timeline of progression for patients ages 15-16 years illustrates how quickly meningococcal disease strikes.

For Information on Catch-up Immunizations Please See Here

Download Materials


Download College Cases Map

Public Service Announcements (PSAs)

The following television and radio PSA campaigns feature NMA spokespersons discussing their experiences with meningococcal disease, as well as the importance of education and vaccination. We encourage you to share them with your families, friends and/or patients to help raise awareness of this disease.

The Right Thing to Do (2015) Parents who lost their children to meningococcal disease encourage families to learn about vaccination. It’s the right thing to do.

The Right Thing to Do
M.O.M.s Claudette, Jan, Patti and Deb lost their daughters to meningococcal disease.

The Right Thing to Do: Serogroup B
Parents who lost their children to serogroup B meningococcal disease educate families about the recent availability of vaccines to protect against it.

Pledge 2 Prevent Toolkit
Pledge 2 Prevent

Below are materials designed to help student groups, including fraternities and sororities, raise awareness of meningococcal disease, its prevention, and to advocate for changes in campus vaccination policy to protect their fellow students.

Taking the Pledge

If you are a college student, you need to know about meningococcal disease (pronounced muh-ning-joe-KOK-ul). It’s an infection that is sometimes called “bacterial meningitis” or simply “meningitis.”

In the past three years, students at more than 34 college campuses in the U.S. got meningitis.

What’s Included…

Click the icons to access templates and resources.

About this Toolkit

List of Ideas for Raising Meningitis Awareness on Campus:
Start here for ideas on how to raise awareness at your school

Petition Guide and Templates:
Ask students to sign a commitment or create a petition to ask your school’s leaders to take action against meningitis

Educational Fliers:
Two versions:
Version A | Version B

Template Letter to Administrators:
Customize and send this letter to ask administrators to take action by educating students and reviewing current meningitis vaccine policies

Fact Sheet: Basic disease and prevention information

Template Op-Ed: Customize this op-ed and submit to your campus newspaper

Meningitis Stories (Video): Stories of students and families affected by meningitis

Sample Social Media PostsTiles, and Snapchat Frame: For sharing information on your social media channels

Display Banner: For use at informational tables or events
4ft | 6ft


Download College Cases Map

For ongoing updates about serogroup B outbreaks and cases, please follow NMA on Twitter or Facebook.

The National Meningitis Association (NMA) is an organization formed by families who have been affected by meningococcal disease. Our advocates include parents who lost college-age children to the disease and those who suffered its life-long impact after surviving bacterial meningitis as college students.

This site is supported by grants and donations to the National Meningitis Association.