Meningococcal meningitis is a potentially serious infection that can result in brain damage or even death. It’s fairly uncommon, but it can be highly infectious. Read on to learn how the disease spreads, how to prevent it, and what precautions you can take to avoid it.
How meningitis spreads
Meningococcal meningitis is most often caused by a type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. About 1 in 10 people carry this germ in their nose or throat without any signs or symptoms of disease. These people are called carriers.
Carriers can infect other people through activities like:
- open-mouthed kissing
- sharing food or utensils
Susceptible people can develop an infection after exposure to the bacteria that cause meningitis.
The infection affects the delicate tissue that encases the brain and spinal cord. This thin tissue is called the meninges. Meningococcal meningitis is a serious infection of the meninges and cerebrospinal fluid. Inflammation and swelling in these tissues can exert dangerous pressure on the brain or spinal cord.
Prompt diagnosis and treatment are essential. But the symptoms of meningitis can be similar to symptoms of other illnesses. As a result, medical attention is often delayed.
Meningococcal meningitis can be treated with antibiotic drugs. Even with rapid antibiotic treatment, a person with meningitis may have serious consequences that can last a lifetime. Affected people may experience a loss of hearing, loss of limbs, or loss of the ability to think clearly.
With the introduction of new vaccines, avoiding a meningitis infection is a lot easier today. Most children receive the meningococcal conjugate vaccine routinely. The first dose is usually given between the ages of 11 and 12 years old. A booster shot is given about five years later. An older vaccine known as the meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine can be given to people who are older than 55. Young people ages 16 to 21 are considered most at risk for contracting meningitis.
The vaccination teaches the immune system to recognize proteins on the bacteria that cause meningococcal meningitis. The immune system then targets the bacteria. There are several strains of the bacteria, however, and vaccines aren’t available for all of them. Current vaccines can prevent the majority of the most common strains. While children now routinely receive the vaccine, older adults may not have been vaccinated.
An unvaccinated person who has been exposed to meningitis should seek medical attention immediately. Doctors will often prescribe a course of prophylactic antibiotics. This kind of antibiotic use can prevent the disease from taking hold in a recently exposed person. Even if doctors can’t confirm exposure, they will usually prescribe antibiotics to be safe.
Practicing good hygiene can also help you avoid exposure. Meningococcal meningitis is usually spread through contact with the saliva or nasal secretions of an infected person. Try to avoid sharing drinks, eating utensils, or other items that may contain saliva. Also, don’t engage in open-mouthed kissing with an infected person.
You should seek vaccination before traveling to certain regions where the disease is common. For example, the disease frequently causes outbreaks of illness in sub-Saharan Africa.
Certain groups are also more likely to get the infection, including:
- U.S. military recruits
- college freshmen living in dormitories
- people with a damaged or missing spleen
- laboratory workers who regularly work with N. meningitidis
- people with a disorder called complement component deficiency
By getting vaccinated and practicing good hygiene, you can avoid exposure to meningococcal meningitis.