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Meningococcal Disease

Also called: Meningococcal Infections


What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is the name for any illness that is caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacteria (also called meningococcal bacteria). These illnesses are often severe and can sometimes be deadly. They include infections of the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) and in the bloodstream (sepsis). Vaccines can help prevent the disease.

What causes meningococcal disease?

Some people have Neisseria meningitidis, the bacteria that cause the disease, in the back of their nose and throat. They usually have the bacteria but don't get sick. This is called being a "carrier." But sometimes the bacteria can spread to other parts of the body and cause meningococcal disease.

The bacteria can spread from person to person through saliva (spit). It usually happens through close or lengthy contact with a person who has it. Close contact can include things like kissing and coughing.

You cannot catch the bacteria through casual contact with someone who has the disease. For example, you cannot get it by breathing air where that person has been.

Who is more likely to get meningococcal disease?

Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but you are more likely to get it if someone you live with has it. You are also more likely to get it if you have direct contact with the saliva of someone who has it (like through kissing).

Also, certain groups of people are more likely to get the disease. They include:

  • Children younger than 1 year old.
  • Teens and young adults ages 16 through 23 years old.
  • Adults 65 years and older.
  • People with medical conditions that weaken their immune system, including those with HIV and certain rare immune system diseases.
  • People who either don't have a spleen or have a spleen that does not function well.
  • People who take complement inhibitor. These are immunotherapy medicines that are given to people with certain rare conditions.
  • People who live in crowded settings, such as college dorms or military barracks.
  • People who travel to areas where the disease is more common, such as certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?

There are different types of meningococcal disease. The most common types are meningitis and septicemia. Both types are very serious and can be deadly in a matter of hours.

Meningococcal meningitis is a meningococcal infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. The most common symptoms include:

It can also cause symptoms such as:

It may be hard to notice these symptoms in newborns and babies. They can also have different symptoms. They may:

  • Be slow or inactive
  • Be irritable
  • Vomit
  • Feed poorly
  • Have a bulging of the soft spot of their skull

Meningococcal septicemia is a meningococcal infection of the bloodstream. It's also called meningococcemia. When someone has this disease, the bacteria enter the bloodstream and multiply. This damages the walls of the blood vessels and causes bleeding into the skin and organs. The symptoms may include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Severe aches or pain in the muscles, joints, chest, or abdomen (belly)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • A dark purple rash (in the later stages of the disease)

Because it is so serious, you need to seek immediate medical attention if you or your child develops the symptoms of meningococcal disease.

How is meningococcal disease diagnosed?

The signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease are often similar to those of other illnesses. This can make it hard to diagnose.

If your (or your child's) health care provider thinks that you or your child could have meningococcal disease, they will order tests that take samples of blood and/or cerebrospinal fluid (fluid near the spinal cord). They will send the samples to a lab for testing. The testing will include bacteria culture testing, which can identify the specific type of bacteria that is causing the infection. Knowing this can help the provider decide on the best treatment.

What are the treatments for meningococcal disease?

Certain antibiotics can treat meningococcal disease. It is important that treatment is started as soon as possible. So if the provider thinks you have meningococcal disease, they will give you antibiotics right away (before the test results come back).

People with serious disease may need additional treatments, such as:

  • Breathing support
  • Medicines to treat low blood pressure
  • Surgery to remove dead tissue
  • Wound care for parts of the body with damaged skin

Some people with meningococcal disease will have long-term health problems and disabilities. These may include:

Even with treatment, 10 to 15 in 100 people will die from the disease.

Can meningococcal disease be prevented?

The best way to prevent meningococcal disease is to get vaccinated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends meningococcal vaccination for:

  • All preteens and teens
  • Children at higher risk for meningococcal disease
  • Adults at higher risk for meningococcal disease

If you are a close contact of a person with meningococcal disease, you will likely be given antibiotics to prevent you from getting sick. This is called "prophylaxis." Close contacts include people who are living together. They also include people who had direct contact with the saliva of a person who has the disease (such as from kissing).

Although it's rare, you can get meningococcal disease more than once.

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The information on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Contact a health care provider if you have questions about your health.