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Meningococcal infection

Meningococcal infection

Causes

Bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis cause meningococcal disease. About 1 in 10 people have these bacteria in the back of their nose and throat with no signs or symptoms of disease; this is called being ‘a carrier’. But sometimes the bacteria invade the body and cause certain illnesses, which are known as meningococcal disease.

Spread to Others

People spread meningococcal bacteria to other people by sharing respiratory and throat secretions (saliva or spit). Generally, it takes close (for example, coughing or kissing) or lengthy contact to spread these bacteria. (Although "close contact" has not been clearly defined, it generally refers to individuals who have had prolonged (>8 hours) contact while in close proximity (<3 feet) to the patient or who have been directly exposed to the patient's oral secretions, i.e. kissing). Fortunately, they are not as contagious as germs that cause the common cold or the flu. People do not catch them through casual contact or by breathing air where someone with meningococcal disease has been. It is NOT spread by the swimming pool water.

Sometimes the bacteria spread to people who have had close or lengthy contact with a patient with meningococcal disease. Those at increased risk of getting sick include:

  • People who live with the patient
  • Anyone with direct contact with the patient’s oral secretions, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of meningococcal disease can first appear as a flu-like illness and rapidly worsen. The two most common types of meningococcal infections are meningitis and septicemia. Both of these types of infections are very serious and can be deadly in a matter of hours.

Meningococcal Meningitis

Doctors call meningitis caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis meningococcal meningitis. When someone has meningococcal meningitis, the bacteria infect the protective membranes covering their brain and spinal cord and cause swelling.

Teenage girl consoling friend

The most common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck

There are often additional symptoms, such as

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Photophobia (eyes being more sensitive to light)
  • Altered mental status (confusion)

Newborns and babies may not have or it may be difficult to notice the classic symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness. Instead, babies may be slow or inactive, irritable, vomiting, or feeding poorly. In young children, doctors may also look at the child’s reflexes for signs of meningitis.

If you think you or your child has any of these symptoms, call the doctor right away.

Meningococcal Septicemia (aka Meningococcemia)

Doctors call septicemia (a bloodstream infection) caused by Neisseria meningitidis meningococcal septicemia or meningococcemia. When someone has meningococcal septicemia, the bacteria enter the bloodstream and multiply, damaging the walls of the blood vessels. This causes bleeding into the skin and organs.

Symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Cold chills
  • Severe aches or pain in the muscles, joints, chest or abdomen (belly)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • In the later stages, a dark purple rash that doesn't blanch (easy to check by pressing on it with a clear glass)

If you think you or your child has any of these symptoms, call the doctor right away.

Diagnosis

Meningococcal disease can be difficult to diagnose because the signs and symptoms are often similar to those of other illnesses. If a doctor suspects meningococcal disease, they will collect samples of blood or cerebrospinal fluid.

Treatment

Doctors treat meningococcal disease with a number of effective antibiotics. It is important that treatment start as soon as possible. If a doctor suspects meningococcal disease, they will give the patient antibiotics right away. Antibiotics help reduce the risk of dying.

Prevention

Keeping up to date with recommended immunizations is the best defense against meningococcal disease. Maintaining healthy habits, like getting plenty of rest and not having close contact with people who are sick, also helps.

Vaccination

Like with any vaccine, meningococcal vaccines are not 100% effective. This means there is still a chance you can develop meningococcal disease after vaccination. People should know the symptoms of meningococcal disease since early recognition and quick medical attention are extremely important.

Antibiotics

Close contacts of a person with meningococcal disease should receive antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick. Examples of close contacts include:

  • People in the same household or roommates
  • Anyone with direct contact with a patient’s oral secretions (saliva or spit), such as a boyfriend or girlfriend

Doctors recommend who should get prophylaxis.