Meningococcal Meningitis

A closer look at this dangerous cause of headache and rash

If you have a headache with a rash, it could be a very serious infection called meningococcal meningitis. Most people recover from this infection, but without proper treatment, it can lead to permanent disability and even death in just a few hours.

Woman with headache
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Different types of meningitis are caused by different infectious agents (i.e., virus or bacteria). Meningococcal meningitis is a rare type of bacterial meningitis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported only 350 cases in the United States in all of 2017, which is about one case in every million people.

Meningococcal meningitis is always a medical emergency. With treatment, the disease is fatal in 10-15% of cases, according to the CDC. Without treatment, the World Health Organization says it kills half of the people it infects.

Meningitis Basics

A meningitis infection leads to inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It is most commonly caused by a bacteria or virus, and rarely by a fungus.

Meningitis is spread through respiratory germs and secretions from your mouth, such as those that can be passed by kissing. Overall, the infectious agents that cause meningitis are not as easily spread as those that cause the common cold or the flu.

Symptoms of meningitis include:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Neck stiffness

In bacterial forms, those symptoms come on and worsen quickly.

Other meningitis symptoms include:

  • Rash
  • Photophobia (sensitivity to light) and/or phonophobia (sensitivity to sound)
  • Fatigue or trouble waking
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Low appetite
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy
  • Confusion

This infection is diagnosed by an invasive test called a lumbar puncture (also called a spinal tap). During this test, a needle is placed in the lower back to collect spinal fluid. The fluid is tested for signs of infection, inflammation, bleeding, and the presence of infectious organisms.

Treatment typically entails antiviral and/or antibiotic medication, depending on the specific infectious agent.

Meningitis Healthcare Provider Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Man

What Is Meningococcal Meningitis?

Meningococcal meningitis is caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. It produces a characteristic rash consisting of tiny red dots called petechiae. These tiny red dots represent bleeding into the skin.

The petechiae can coalesce to form larger skin lesions called purpura. Neither the smaller dots nor the purpura spots will blanch (disappear when you press on the skin).

Many other medical conditions can also cause petechiae of the skin, including vasculitis, leukemia, and lupus. If you have petechiae and other symptoms that could indicate meningitis, your healthcare provider will immediately start treatment and may send you for a lumbar puncture.

If you have a headache and a rash, get medical attention immediately. Meningococcal meningitis can be deadly if isn't treated promptly.

How Common Is Rash in Meningitis?

Overall, a rash is not unusual with other forms of meningitis. It's more common in meningococcal disease, though, with about 50% of infected people developing petechiae.

You can have petechiae and not have meningitis, or you could have a non-meningococcal form of meningitis. Alternately, you can have meningococcal meningitis and not have a petechial rash. This is not a cut-and-dried correlation.

Treatment and Prevention

The treatment for meningococcal meningitis is antibiotics. Starting treatment quickly reduces the risk of death. Because of the seriousness of the disease, healthcare providers recommend treatment for the people you're in close contact with as well, to help keep them from developing it.

There is a vaccine for meningococcal meningitis, but it isn't 100% effective. It lowers your risk of infection, but you can still develop meningococcal meningitis after being vaccinated.

A Word From Verywell

Developing a headache and rash, or any symptoms that could indicate meningococcal meningitis can be frightening. Try to keep in mind that this is a rare disease. If you are diagnosed with this infection, rest assured that it's highly treatable. With swift diagnosis and treatment, your odds of a full recovery are high.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bacterial meningitis.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningitis.

  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Petechiae. StatPearls

  4. World Health Organization. Meningococcal meningitis.

  5. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Meningococcal meningitis.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningococcal disease: Diagnosis & treatment.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningococcal disease: Prevention.

By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.