Meningococcal disease is a very serious illness caused by bacteria. It can lead to brain damage, disability, and death. It usually causes two types of infections: swelling of the covering of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) and blood infections (septicemia).
There are five types (serogroups) of meningococcal bacteria that cause most disease worldwide: A, B, C, W, and Y. Serogroups B, C, and Y cause most of the illness seen in the United States. There are vaccines to protect against all five of these strains.
Meningitis is the most common form of meningococcal disease (50 percent of cases). Symptoms of meningitis include sudden onset of fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and confusion.
Meningococcal septicemia (bloodstream infection) is the second most common type of meningococcal infection (40 percent of cases). Symptoms of septicemia include fever, fatigue, vomiting, severe aches or pain, rapid breathing, diarrhea, cold chills, and in the later stages, a dark purple rash on the legs and arms.
If a person has symptoms of meningococcal disease, they usually appear anywhere from 3 to 4 days after exposure. Some people are carriers of meningococcal bacteria, but they have no symptoms of disease. Carriers can spread the disease to other people through direct contact with saliva.
Newborns and babies may not have the classic symptoms. Instead, babies may be slow or inactive, irritable, vomiting, or feed poorly. In young children, doctors may also look at the child's reflexes for signs of meningococcal disease, specifically meningitis.
Yes, meningococcal disease is contagious. It requires close or lengthy contact to spread. It's spread to other people by respiratory droplets, saliva or spit, or direct contact, such as coughing, kissing, or sharing anything by mouth with an infected person, like straws, silverware, lip balm, or toothbrushes.
Although it is rare, people can get meningococcal disease more than once. A previous infection does not offer lifelong protection from future infections. The risk of reinfection is one of the reasons why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all preteens and teens get vaccinated against meningococcal disease.
Even with antibiotic treatment, 10 to 15 in 100 people infected with meningococcal disease will die. About 11 to 19 in 100 survivors will have long-term disabilities, such as loss of limb(s), deafness, nervous system problems, or brain damage.
Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but rates of disease are highest in children younger than 1 year of age, followed by a second peak in adolescence. Among teens and young adults, those 16 through 23 years old have the highest rates of meningococcal disease. Adults age 65 years and older have higher rates of disease as well.
Some people are at greater risk for getting meningococcal disease and include those who:
- Are children less than 5 years of age, adolescents and young adults 16-21 years of age, and adults 65 and older
- Have a rare type of autoimmune disorder (complement component deficiency)
- Are taking the medicine called eculizumab (Soliris®)
- Have asplenia (a damaged spleen or their spleen has been removed), including sickle cell disease
- Have HIV
- Are traveling to or living in countries where the disease is common
- Are part of a group of people identified to be at increased risk because of a meningococcal disease outbreak
- Are a microbiologist who is routinely exposed to the meningococcal bacteria Neisseria meningitides
- Are college students living in a residence hall
- Are a military recruit
Other factors that may increase risk for meningococcal disease include household crowding, smoking, and having a viral infection that occurs before meningococcal infection.
The best way to protect yourself against meningococcal disease is to get vaccinated before you are exposed. Two types of vaccines can protect against several kinds of meningococcal disease: meningococcal conjugate vaccine (protect against serogroups A, C, W, and Y) and meningococcal B vaccine (protect against serogroup B).
Meningococcal conjugate vaccine is a routine recommendation for all children aged 11 to 12 years, with a booster shot for teens at 16 years of age. Travelers to certain countries, and people aged 2 months and older who are at increased risk for meningococcal disease should also get the vaccine. People who are at increased risk for meningococcal disease should get revaccinated every 5 years with meningococcal conjugate vaccine as long as they remain at increased risk.
Meningococcal B vaccine may be given at 10 years of age and older to people with certain health conditions, are at increased risk because of a meningococcal B disease outbreak, or work with meningococcal bacterial in a lab. This vaccine is given in 2 or 3 doses.
What should I do if I have been exposed to someone with meningococcal disease or get sick with meningococcal disease?
If you are exposed to someone with meningococcal disease or get sick with it, go to the emergency room for treatment as soon as possible. Then call your healthcare provider or local health department.
Many antibiotics are effective for treating meningococcal disease. It is important that treatment starts as soon as possible. Antibiotics help reduce the risk of dying, and are most effective when given immediately after symptoms begin.
Anyone who has been in close contact with someone who is sick with meningococcal disease should also seek treatment and begin antibiotics within 24 hours, even if they have been vaccinated before.
Meningococcal Disease (PDF) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Protect yourself from meningococcal disease… Get vaccinated! (PDF) (Immunization Action Coalition)
Vaccine Information Statements
Meningococcal ACWY (CDC)
Meningococcal disease (CDC)
Traveler's health (CDC)
Ask the experts: meningococcal ACWY (Immunization Action Coalition)