What Is Meningococcal Disease?

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Meningococcal disease is an infection caused by a type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. There are two types of meningococcal disease: meningococcal meningitis or meningococcal septicemia.

Meningococcal septicemia, also known as meningococcemia, occurs when the bacteria spread to your bloodstream, while meningococcal meningitis is when the bacteria infect the membranes surrounding your brain and spinal cord, known as the meninges, and cause swelling.

Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency, and the symptoms can progress from mild flu-like symptoms to death in just a matter of hours. Any sign or symptom of meningococcal disease should be evaluated and treated right away. 

Doctor talking to patient in examination room

Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

Causes

Meningococcal disease is caused by an infection with the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about one in 10 people have these bacteria in their respiratory and throat secretions without becoming ill. 

There are six types of Neisseria meningitidis bacteria that can lead to meningococcal disease, and the three most common in the United States are types B, C, and Y.

Can You Catch Meningococcal Disease From Someone Else?

Meningococcal disease is usually spread during close contact, such as kissing or living together. The bacteria that cause meningococcal disease are usually spread by carriers, people who have the bacteria in their respiratory secretions but have not become ill. 

Risk Factors

While anyone can become ill with meningococcal disease, it is rare. Risk factors that may cause you to be more likely to become ill include:

  • Age: Infants are at increased risk of developing a serious illness because their immune systems are weaker. Teens and young adults are also at higher risk than other age groups. 
  • Immunocompromised: If your immune system is compromised due to medications or a chronic condition, it may not be able to fight infections off, including meningococcal disease.
  • Group setting: People who live in a group setting, such as college students living in a dormitory, are at increased risk of catching infections from one another. 
  • Asplenic: If you have had your spleen removed, you are more likely to develop meningococcal disease. 
  • Travel: Meningococcal disease is more common in certain parts of the world. If you are traveling to sub-Saharan Africa, be sure to speak with your doctor about vaccines to protect yourself. 

Symptoms

The symptoms of meningococcal disease depend on which area of the body has been infected with the bacteria. They usually start out as flu-like symptoms and rapidly worsen in a matter of hours. 

Meningococcal meningitis symptoms include: 

  • Fever 
  • Neck stiffness
  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irritability 
  • Confusion 
  • Infants may have a bulging fontanelle 

Meningococcal septicemia symptoms include:

  • Petechiae
  • Fever and chills 
  • Fatigue
  • Rash or lesions over the body
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea 
  • Confusion
  • Rapid breathing 
  • Unconsciousness
  • Seizures
  • Septic shock 

How Fatal Is Meningococcal Disease?

Early symptoms of meningococcal disease are usually mild and resemble the flu. However, they can worsen quickly and even lead to death within 48 hours. According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, about one in 10 people who get meningococcal disease will die from it, and up to 20% of people who survive will experience serious, permanent complications. 

Diagnosis

It's crucial to quickly diagnose and treat meningococcal disease right away. If you suspect that you or a loved one has contracted meningitis, seek emergency treatment immediately.

Your physician will start by taking a detailed history and asking about your symptoms. Other diagnostic tools they will use include:

  • Physical exam: Your doctor will inspect your skin for petechiae, which is a sign of meningococcal septicemia. They will also evaluate any neck or joint stiffness, which could indicate meningitis. 
  • Blood culture: A blood culture can help determine which type of bacteria is causing the infection.
  • Lumbar puncture: A lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, may be performed to diagnose meningococcal meningitis. The procedure involves placing a thin needle between the vertebrae in the lower back to draw out cerebrospinal fluid and test it for bacteria. 

If you have had recent close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with meningococcal disease, talk with your doctor about prophylaxis treatment. This involves taking an antibiotic medication as a preventative measure. 

Treatment

As soon as the medical team suspects meningococcal disease, treatment is started. The first step is admitting you to the hospital. From there, IV antibiotics are started.

The medical team will start with broad-spectrum antibiotic therapy. Once your blood cultures come back and reveal the type of bacteria that's causing your infection, they may change to a different antibiotic. 

Further treatment for meningococcal disease depends on the type of disease and how advanced it is. Depending on how your body is responding to the infection, you may require:

  • Intravenous (IV) fluids
  • Blood products
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Medications to treat low blood pressure 
  • Wound care for damaged skin
  • Surgery to remove dead tissue

Vaccination

Meningococcal disease cannot always be prevented, but vaccines are an effective way to greatly reduce your risk. The CDC recommends that all preteens and teens receive meningococcal vaccination. 

There are two types of meningococcal vaccines. The MenACWY vaccine (Menactra, Menveo, and MenQuadfi) protects against types A, C, W, and Y.

The MenACWY Vaccine

The MenACWY vaccine is recommended for all 11- and 12-year-olds, with a booster shot at age 16, and children 2 months and older if they:

  • Have complement component deficiency
  • Are taking a complement inhibitor medication
  • Have a damaged or removed spleen
  • Live in or travel to an area with outbreaks
  • Have HIV

This vaccine is also recommended for adults who meet the above the criteria and the following:

  • Work as a microbiologist 
  • Are a military recruit 
  • Are first-year college students who live in residential housing

Possible side effects include:

  • Pain and redness at the injection site
  • Mild fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue 

The MenB Vaccine

The MenB vaccine (Bexsero and Trumenba) protects against type B. The CDC recommends that parents of preteens and teens talk with their pediatricians about whether this vaccine is necessary for their children. 

The MenB vaccine is recommended for children and teens who:

  • Have complement component deficiency
  • Are taking a complement inhibitor medication
  • Have a damaged or removed spleen

It's also recommended for adults who meet the above criteria and work as a microbiologist. 

Possible side effects include: 

  • Pain, redness, and swelling at the injection site
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea 

Research shows that these vaccines are effective at preventing meningococcal disease. In 2005, the CDC began recommending the MenACWY vaccine routinely for preteens and teens. Since then, the incidence of meningococcal disease caused by those four types of bacteria has fallen by 90%. 

The meningococcal vaccines are available at pediatrician’s offices, primary care physicians' offices, pharmacies, and public health departments. Most private insurance companies and statewide vaccine programs cover the cost. Call your insurance provider to find out if there will be a copay. 

Who Should Not Be Vaccinated?

If you have ever had a life-threatening reaction to a meningococcal vaccine or if you have a serious allergy to any of its ingredients, you should not receive the vaccine. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk with your doctor about if the vaccine is safe for you.

Complications

Because meningococcal disease is so serious, there are several possible complications. Complications can occur during the active infection time or during your recovery period.

It’s estimated that about one in five people who survive meningococcal disease will experience permanent complications.

Possible complications include:

Summary

Meningococcal disease is caused by a bacterial infection and requires treatment right away. If left untreated, this condition can lead to a number of serious complications. Vaccines are the most effective way to protect yourself from meningococcal disease.

A Word From Verywell

Meningococcal disease is a serious, life-threatening condition that needs emergency treatment. Don’t hesitate to head to your local emergency department if you develop the symptoms.

Common signs of meningococcal septicemia include petechiae, fever, rash, and confusion. Symptoms of meningococcal meningitis usually include severe headache, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light, and fever.

Once diagnosed with meningococcal disease, your medical team will admit you to the hospital for IV antibiotic therapy and other treatments as needed. Complications are common, and meningococcal disease can be deadly.

The best way to prevent meningococcal disease is to stay up to date with your immunizations. Talk with your doctor about the two meningococcal vaccines.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningococcal disease causes and transmission. Updated May 31, 2019.

  2. MedlinePlus. Meningococcal infections. Updated February 22, 2021.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningococcal disease risk factors. Updated May 31, 2019.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease. Updated June 7, 2017.

  5. National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Meningococcal disease in adults

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningococcal disease diagnosis and treatment. Updated May 31, 2019.

  7. World Health Organization. Meningococcal meningitis. Updated February 19, 2018.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningococcal vaccines recommended for preteens, teens. Updated April 1, 2021.

  9. American Academy of Pediatrics. Meningococcal disease: Information for teens and college students. Updated June 2016. 

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