Symptoms and Treatments of Meningococcal Septicaemia

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Meningococcal septicaemia is a potentially fatal blood infection caused by Neisseria meningitidis, a type of bacteria that causes bacterial meningitis. When someone has meningococcal septicemia, the bacteria enter the bloodstream and multiply, damaging the walls of the blood vessels and causing bleeding into the skin and organs.

Also called meningococcemia, meningococcal septicaemia is a rare disease, but one you want to recognize quickly. Meningococcal septicaemia can cause death in a matter of hours. Early treatment can help prevent life-threatening or debilitating complications and lead to a full recovery.

a man holding his head in pain

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Causes

Meningococcal septicaemia is an infection of the bloodstream caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. Any disease caused by these bacteria is called meningococcal disease. The two most common types are meningococcal meningitis and meningococcal septicemia. 

Bacteria can infect the lining of the brain and spinal cord, which is called the meninges, and cause inflammation of those tissues. This happens in the case of meningococcal meningitis.

About one in 10 people have Neisseria meningitidis bacteria in the back of their nose and throat without being ill. These people are known as carriers. They can spread the bacteria to others through spit or saliva, such as from kissing or coughing in close quarters. However, you can’t catch them through casual contact.

Risk Factors

Some people are more likely than others to develop dangerous infections from these bacteria. Factors that put you at risk of contracting a meningococcal disease include:

  • Age: It’s most common in infants, teenagers, and young adults. People over 65 are at the highest risk of fatality.
  • Group settings: College dorms, camps, military barracks, or anywhere large groups of people live together can be the site of outbreaks.
  • Travel to sub-Saharan Africa: This region is called the “meningitis belt.”
  • A compromised immune system: Organ transplant recipients or HIV infection, primary immunodeficiency (PID), functional or anatomic asplenia, and persistent complement component deficiency can all increase your risk of getting meningitis.

If you’re at higher risk of this dangerous infection, talk to your doctor about getting a vaccine. If you have close contact with someone who has a meningococcal disease, you should receive antibiotics to avoid catching the disease. This is called prophylaxis.

Symptoms

Symptoms of meningococcal septicaemia can come on suddenly and include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Severe aches or pain in the muscles, joints, chest, or stomach
  • Rapid breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • A dark purple rash in the later stages

The rash may later become widespread or develop into bleeding spots under the skin. It may be associated with swelling, muscle pain, skin deterioration, or gangrene—tissue death caused by a lack of blood supply—in the arms and legs. Pneumonia may also develop if the affected individual has a suppressed immune system.

People who have both meningitis and meningococcemia may have the above symptoms as well as headaches, confusion, and a stiff neck.

Seek emergency medical attention if you or anyone you know has these symptoms. Quick action can save their life and prevent serious complications.

Diagnosis

Early on, and especially if the rash isn’t present, meningococcal disease can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are similar to those of many different illnesses. 

Tell Your Doctor If You Have Been Exposed

You should immediately tell a healthcare professional if there’s been any possible exposure to bacterial meningitis or if you have any of the known risk factors. That may prompt them to test for it earlier than they otherwise might.

Doctors can confirm suspected bacterial meningococcal disease through laboratory testing of blood or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the fluid near the spinal cord. Testing the CSF requires a lumbar puncture (spinal tap).

If the CSF is positive for bacteria that can cause meningococcal disease, the lab can then grow a culture to find out the specific type of bacteria that is causing the infection. This helps doctors select the best antibiotics to treat it.

Treatment

If your doctor finds that you have meningococcal septicaemia, they will treat you with antibiotics right away. Antibiotics help reduce the risk of death.

Depending on how serious the infection is, people with meningococcal disease may need other treatments, including:

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

Emergency Treatment: Meningitis

Initial hospital treatment for bacterial meningitis typically includes:

Emergency Treatment: Septicaemia

Septicaemia can lead to shock, which means your blood isn’t circulating properly and your organs and tissues can’t function well. Shock can cause low blood pressure, so medications may be used to raise it. Breathing assistance from a ventilator may also be needed to keep enough oxygen in the body, which may mean going to an intensive care unit.

Between 10 to 15 in 100 people with meningococcal disease die despite treatment with antibiotics.

Complications

About 20% of people who survive meningococcal disease have long-term complications, which are more common in those with severe disease.

Complications may include:

Follow-Up Care and Testing

Before the end of a hospital stay for meningococcal septicaemia, your doctor should be able to tell you what to expect during recovery and the follow-up care you’ll need based on illness severity and complications.

Hearing tests may be recommended, and your doctor will likely watch for signs of complications that may develop later, including problems with nerves, bones, or senses, as well as psychological issues.

If no known risk factors were present when the disease was contracted, the doctor may recommend testing for immune system abnormalities that may have allowed the bacteria to take hold.

A Word From Verywell

Meningococcal septicaemia is an awful disease that strikes fast and hits hard. Remembering the common symptoms of this disease can help put you on alert so you can get medical help right away if you do develop the illness. Prompt diagnosis and treatment can help prevent death and other serious complications, and lead to a full recovery.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningococcal disease: causes and spread to others. Updated May 31, 2019.

  2. Wang AY, Machicado JD, Khoury NT, Wootton SH, Salazar L, Hasburn R. Community-acquired meningitis in older adults: clinical features, etiology, and prognostic factors. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2014;62(11):2064-2070. doi:10.1111/jgs.13110

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningococcal disease: signs and symptoms. Updated June 7, 2017.

  4. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Meningococcemia.

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

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