Meningococcal disease is a serious bacterial infection that can result in organ damage or death. The disease is treated with antibiotics. Early treatment is key. Vaccination is a step toward prevention.
Meningococcal disease is any type of infection that’s caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis, which is also called meningococcus. The bacteria can infect the meninges and the blood. These infections can be serious, even fatal. They’re called meningococcal meningitis and meningococcal septicemia.
The word “meninges” means the three membranes that cover your central nervous system, which is made up of your spinal cord and brain. Membranes are thin layers of tissue that provide protection for the content of the tissues. (Think of how oranges and grapefruits are sectioned off.) Technically, the largest membrane is our skin.
The three meninges are pia mater, arachnoid and dura mater.
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Meningococcal disease is caused by one specific type of bacteria. Meningitis is a term that refers to the inflammation of the meninges. Meningitis can happen in meningococcal disease, but not all cases of meningitis are caused by the germ that causes meningococcal disease.
Certain people are more likely than others to get meningococcal disease. These people are those who:
Rates of meningococcal disease in the U.S. have been falling since the years after World War II. In 2019, 371 cases were reported. Small outbreaks still happen, often among people who live closely together.
There are many signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease. You should contact your healthcare provider immediately if you have any of these symptoms. It’s very important to get an early diagnosis.
Signs and symptoms may include:
There may be other indications that you have meningococcal disease, such as:
In small children, symptoms may include refusing to eat, being twitchy or floppy, or being extremely tired.
Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria. It’s contagious between people and is transmitted through mucus.
You can catch meningococcal disease if you spend time in close contact with someone who has it. You can give it to someone else if you have it, as well.
The germ that causes meningococcal disease doesn’t live long outside the body, so it can’t survive on surfaces.
Diagnosing meningococcal disease is somewhat difficult because symptoms resemble those of other illnesses, like the flu. Your healthcare provider has to find Neisseria meningitidis bacteria to diagnose this condition. So, your doctor will take blood samples and possibly do a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to get spinal fluid to test.
These samples will be sent to a laboratory to see if the bacteria can be cultured (grown). Your healthcare provider may order other tests if the cultures aren’t conclusive.
Meningococcal disease is treated with antibiotics. If your healthcare provider thinks you have meningococcal disease, they’ll start you on antibiotics even before the condition is confirmed. It’s very important to start treatment as early as possible.
Other treatments may be needed, including:
Meningococcal disease is serious. Ten to 15 people out of 100 will die even if they’re treated with antibiotics. As many as 20% of people who survive will have long-term consequences that may include deafness, limb loss, nerve damage, kidney damage or brain damage.
Complete recovery may take some time. The antibiotics are given over a seven- to 10-day period, but it may take much longer to feel better. This is especially true if you have complications.
You can help to prevent meningococcal disease by doing the following:
There are two types of vaccines against meningococcal disease available in the U.S.
If you take complement inhibitors, your healthcare provider may suggest you also take antibiotics while you take these drugs. These medications treat the following rare diseases:
Some healthcare providers might suggest you be treated with preventive antibiotics if you live with or are in close contact with someone with meningococcal disease.
In general, you should stay away from sick people whenever you can. You should wash your hands thoroughly and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unclean hands.
Meningococcal disease is very serious. It can cause meningococcal meningitis or meningococcal septicemia. It can be fatal. Getting treatment as early as possible is vital.
Your healthcare provider may order antibiotics even before they diagnose meningococcal disease. This is because early treatment is necessary to make a full recovery possible.
Even if you get treatment, you may have some complications. This can range from permanent damage to your skin or organs to possible temporary complications like trouble concentrating.
Unlike other infections, you can have meningococcal disease more than once. Having meningococcal disease once doesn’t give you lifelong immunity. If you do come down with meningococcal disease more than once, your healthcare provider might test your immune system.
You should contact your healthcare provider immediately if you have signs or symptoms of meningococcal disease.
If you have any reactions to treatments, or if you find your symptoms getting worse, contact your healthcare provider.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Although some signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease (like fevers or body aches) resemble other less serious diseases, it’s especially important to get diagnosed and treated early. The disease gets worse very quickly. Make sure you contact your healthcare provider if you or your child have any symptoms, especially a stiff neck. Getting vaccinated is an important part of prevention.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/07/2022.
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