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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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. Parents and teens should talk to their healthcare provider about protection.

Click here for the most recent meningococcal vaccine recommendations and to learn about which non-adolescents should be vaccinated.

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