Meningococcal meningitis

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at February 23, 2016
StartDiseasesMeningococcal meningitis

Meningitis refers to the inflammation of the protective lining around the spinal cord and brain called the meninges. It can develop as either a viral infection or a bacterial infection. Meningococcal meningitis is caused by a bacterial infection; it is a very serious and even life-threatening condition but is thankfully quite rare.


Definition & Facts

The bacterium, meningococcus (also known as Neisseria meningitidis) infects parts of the body such as the respiratory tract or gastrointestinal tract through the skin. If the bacteria travel through the bloodstream and into the nervous system it can cause meningococcal meningitis.

In the United States alone approximately 1,000 people will contract meningococcal meningitis each year. Chances of contracting the disease are higher if you have been exposed to the meningococcal bacterium or have developed an upper respiratory infection. A full recovery is possible with preventative vaccinations. If contracted and left untreated severe brain damage may result, and in half the instances it will be fatal.

Symptoms & Complaints

The symptoms of meningococcal meningitis can be easily overlooked as they often mirror influenza. The onset of symptoms may appear suddenly. For this reason, a speedy diagnosis is imperative to avoid a potentially fatal outcome. Warning signs may include:

These symptoms accompanied by a purple rash or red rash can be a serious indicator of meningitis along with blood poisoning. If the rash, along with these signs are present seek medical attention immediately:

Young children may experience emotional trauma after recovering from this severe disease. Parents may notice some or all of these behaviors:

Adults may also suffer emotional damage such as:

Physical after-effects for both adults and children may include:


The bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, or more commonly referred to as meningococcus, is the cause of meningococcal meningitis and only effects humans. Six serogroups of the Neisseria meningitidis species are known to cause the disease: Groups A, B, C, W, X, Y. The bacteria are carried around in the throat and can be transmitted from person-to-person through throat or respiratory secretions. The disease is most present in the spring or winter months. Some common ways the disease is transmitted include:

Certain groups of people are at a higher risk of contracting the infection, including:

  • United States military recruits
  • Lab personnel who often work with the disease
  • Those traveling to other countries like Africa where the disease is common

Diagnosis & Tests

The first step in diagnosing meningococcal meningitis is to examine the patient. Time is of the essence therefore, a clear and concise account of the patient’s medical condition is very important. The doctor will note the heart rate, signs of fever, a stiff neck or a rash. He or she will also want to determine any changes to the patient’s mental well being. If meningococcal meningitis is suspected further testing will be needed. These tests may include:

Treatment & Therapy

Antibiotics such as penicillin, chloramphenicol or ceftriaxone will be the first course of action in treating meningococcal meningitis. Most people will recover fully, but some may take longer with lasting after-effects. Deafness will affect nearly 1 in 10 people. It may only last a short while or may be permanent, requiring the use of hearing aids.

Approximately 15% of sufferers develop long-term complications including learning disabilities and behavioral problems, epilepsy or even brain damage. In these cases continuing support might require physical therapy, occupational therapy, or speech therapy.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Preventing meningococcal meningitis starts with getting vaccinated. Historically, polysaccharide vaccines have been used to prevent meningococcal meningitis though new vaccines have been developed.

Three types of vaccines are currently available for children as young as nine months old up through adults over the age of 55. An initial shot is usually given and then a booster shot is administered approximately 3-5 years after. Speak with a doctor to determine which vaccine will be most effective. Vaccinations are highly recommended for certain groups:

  • Children, teens and young adults
  • College students living in a dormitory for the first time
  • United States military recruits
  • World travelers – check with a doctor for specific locales that are susceptible

Those who may have come in close contact with a meningococcal meningitis carrier should begin antibiotics as soon as possible. This will help protect against the disease but will also prevent spreading the infection to others. Practice good hygiene by washing hands with soap and water, covering the mouth when sneezing or coughing and not sharing food or beverages with anyone.

As long as the bacteria are present in the body the person can infect others. They are only infection-free 48 hours after antibiotics have been taken. This is a serious disease that should not be taken lightly. If meningococcal meningitis is suspected seek medical help. The doctor will be required to alert the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) to reduce the spread of the infection.