What meningococcal meningitis looks like in the human body.
Meningococcal meningitis is a virus that affects the brain cells and spinal cord.

What is Meningococcal Meningitis?

Meningococcal meningitis (more commonly known as bacterial meningitis) is a serious infection that affects the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. The effects of the illness are often severe, and can cause extensive brain damage and fatality in 50% of untreated cases. Meningococcal meningitis is present worldwide and can affect people of any age, though it is most commonly seen in babies, children and teenagers.

Though rare, meningococcal meningitis is a serious and potentially fatal infection that all parents need to be aware of. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential and any child displaying symptoms of the disease should be taken into emergency care immediately.

What Causes Meningococcal Meningitis?

Meningococcal meningitis is caused by the Neisseria meningitidis bacteria. It is one of three forms of bacterial meningitis and is characterized by inflammation of the membranes (meninges) that surround the brain and spinal cord. The disease progresses very quickly and, without prompt antibiotic treatment, is often fatal.

The Neisseria meningitidis bacteria lives in the back of the throat and can be spread from person to person via droplets of saliva. This usually only happens between people who are in close contact with one another, as you would have to kiss, sneeze or cough on someone to transmit the disease. Those at highest risk of catching meningococcal meningitis are usually the direct family members of infected people.

Around one in 10 people are “carriers” of Neisseria meningitidis, meaning they have the bacteria living in their throat and nasal passages, but it does not make them sick.

Symptoms of Meningococcal Meningitis

The symptoms of meningococcal meningitis can vary from person to person, but most commonly include:

  • High fever
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty waking
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Joint pain
  • Severe headache
  • A reddish/purple skin rash that does not disappear when a glass is pressed against it. (Please note that this could be a sign that the bacteria has entered the bloodstream and it is a medical emergency.)

The symptoms of meningococcal meningitis in babies and infants may also include:

  • Bulging fontanelle
  • A floppy, “ragdoll” appearance
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Abnormal skin color (may be blotchy and pale or blue)
  • High-pitched crying
  • Rapid breathing

Symptoms typically appear within two days of exposure to the bacteria, though the incubation period may last as long as 14 days. From here, the progression of the disease is rapid, leading to severe complications and death in a large number of cases. Emergency medical care should be sought as soon as symptoms become apparent.

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Who is Most at Risk for Getting Meningococcal Meningitis?

Meningococcal meningitis infects healthy people and is spread by close contact between individuals (possibly via salivary droplets). It is most common among:

  • Children under the age of two years
  • University students (especially those living in catered accommodation)

Other risk factors for meningococcal meningitis include:

  • Smoking
  • Crowding
  • A weakened immune system

When to See a Doctor

Meningococcal meningitis is a very serious disease that is often fatal if left untreated. It can also lead to serious and life-altering complications such as brain damage, hearing loss, loss of digits and permanent learning disability.

Therefore, it should always be treated as a medical emergency. If someone in your family is exhibiting symptoms of meningococcal meningitis, call 911 or take them immediately to the nearest ER for treatment.

Treatment Options

Meningococcal meningitis requires immediate and multi-armed treatment to reduce the risk of death and other severe complications from the disease and hospitalization is required.

Immediate antibiotic therapy is the first line of treatment against meningococcal meningitis, to clear the bacterial infection. Corticosteroids can be used to reduce swelling around the brain to reduce the risk of hearing loss and neurological damage. Strong pain medication (often opioids) may be used to combat the severe headache that often accompanies the disease, and antiepileptic treatment is needed in the case of seizures.

In Review

Meningococcal meningitis is a form of bacterial meningitis most commonly seen in babies, children, teenagers and young adults. The disease is rare but very serious, leading to death in 50% of all untreated cases. Even survivors of the infection may be left with severe and lasting complications including deafness, learning disabilities and brain damage.

Immediate antibiotic therapy is required to treat people with meningococcal meningitis. People exhibiting any of the symptoms (including sensitivity to light, a severe headache, fever, confusion, difficulty waking and a rash that does not disappear under pressure from a glass) should be taken immediately to the nearest ER for hospitalization.