What is meningococcal disease?
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.
What is the difference between meningococcal disease and meningitis?
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.
Who does meningococcal disease affect?
Certain people are more likely than others to get meningococcal disease. These people are those who:
- Fit into certain age ranges: babies who’re younger than one year, teenagers and early adults. For these groups, being exposed to cigarette smoke adds to the risk.
- Visit areas outside the U.S. where meningococcal disease is prevalent.
- Have no spleen or an injured spleen.
- Have sickle cell disease.
- Live with many others in places like college campuses or military barracks.
- Are exposed during an outbreak or work with bacteria in a laboratory.
- Take medication known as a complement inhibitor. These drugs include eculizumab (Soliris®) and ravulizumab (Ultomiris™), treatments for rare diseases.
How common is this condition?
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.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease?
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:
- Stiff neck. This symptom is one that’s often associated with meningococcal disease and meningitis.
- Bothered by bright light, which is called photophobia.
- Nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea.
- A rash made up of pinpoints that look dark, in shades of red and purple, or a bigger area that looks like a bruise.
There may be other indications that you have meningococcal disease, such as:
- Not being hungry.
- Being confused or irritable.
- Being sleepy.
- Muscle pain and joint aches.
- Grunting and moaning.
- Having trouble walking or staying upright.
In small children, symptoms may include refusing to eat, being twitchy or floppy, or being extremely tired.
What causes meningococcal disease?
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.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is meningococcal disease diagnosed?
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.
Management and Treatment
How is meningococcal disease treated?
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:
- Help with breathing, such as oxygen therapy.
- Drugs to treat low blood pressure.
- Ways to treat damaged or dead skin, including surgeries.
Complications related to meningococcal disease
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.
How can I reduce my risk of getting meningococcal disease?
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:
- Atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is a blood disease.
- Paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, also a blood disease.
- Generalized myasthenia gravis, which causes muscle weakness.
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.
Practice avoidance and infection prevention
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.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have meningococcal disease?
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.
When should you see my healthcare provider if you have or suspect meningococcal disease?
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.
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