Meningococcal Meningitis

Written by Gretchen Holm | Published on July 9, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Meningococcal Meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection and inflammation of the meninges. Your meninges are the membranes that cover your spinal cord and your brain. Meningitis can be caused by many different germs, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses.

Meningococcal meningitis is caused by bacteria. This specific type of meningitis leads to death in about half of untreated cases. Meningitis has many cold and flu-like symptoms such as headache and high fever, but also includes confusion and a stiff neck. If you suspect you may have meningococcal meningitis, see a doctor right away.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anywhere from five to 20 percent of the population may carry the bacteria that cause meningococcal meningitis (CDC, 2012). In most cases, however, it is dormant—meaning it does not cause this disease.

Unfortunately, when the disease is not dormant, it is very dangerous. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the infection is fatal in 10 to 15 percent of cases. In addition, 10 to 15 percent of cases will result in serious brain damage (NINDS, 2011).

What Causes Meningococcal Meningitis?

Meningococcal meningitis is caused by bacteria. There are several types of bacteria that can lead to this condition. The class of bacteria that most often causes meningococcal meningitis is Neisseria meningitidis.

According to the World Health Organization, this type of meningitis occurs most often in a region across Africa called the “meningitis belt.” This strip extends from Guinea and Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east (WHO, 2011). However, it can also occur in the United States and other countries worldwide.

How Is Meningococcal Meningitis Transmitted?

Meningococcal meningitis is transmitted only between people. Animals are not carriers of this disease. The bacteria are spread through mucus or saliva. If you come into contact with one of these fluids from an infected person, you might contract the bacteria.

Because the disease can be transferred in saliva, you might contract it if you and an infected person share something that comes into contact with the mouth. This might be a toothbrush, a cigarette, or even lipstick. It can also be transferred through kissing an infected person, or by inhaling the tiny droplets that are expelled when someone sneezes or coughs.

Up to 20 percent of the population may carry a dormant version of Neisseria meningitides (CDC, 2012). The fact that the bacteria are dormant does not mean that you can’t get it; an infected person can spread Neisseria meningitidis even when it is dormant.

What Are the Symptoms of Meningococcal Meningitis?

You will typically develop symptoms about four days after you were exposed to the bacteria. In some cases, this may happen as quickly as two days after exposure, or may take up to 14 days.

Meningococcal meningitis has several common symptoms, which usually come on rapidly. These common symptoms include:

  • confusion
  • headache
  • high fever
  • sensitivity to light
  • stiff neck
  • vomiting

Other possible, but less common, symptoms include:

  • irritability
  • rash
  • sleepiness

As the disease progresses, you may experience seizures. It can even lead to death if left untreated.

How Is Meningococcal Meningitis Diagnosed?

Your doctor will generally diagnose meningococcal meningitis by performing a spinal tap. In this procedure, your doctor will take a sample of your spinal fluid by inserting a needle into your spine. This fluid is then tested to determine whether you have this disease.

Other procedures your doctor might perform include a blood test and a physical examination for symptoms of meningococcal meningitis. While these are not as conclusive as a spinal tap, they can help give your doctor insight into your condition.

How Is Meningococcal Meningitis Treated?

Your doctor will immediately admit you to the hospital if he or she believes that you have meningococcal meningitis. He or she will treat you with an antibiotic such as ceftriaxone (a common choice for this disease). In some cases, your doctor might use another antibiotic such as:

  • ampicillin
  • benzylpenicillin
  • cefotaxime
  • chloramphenicol
  • penicillin

Because this disease is spread through close contact, your doctor may also recommend treating anyone who may have been in close contact with you.

What Is the Outlook for Someone Infected With Meningococcal Meningitis?

This very serious form of meningitis is fatal in up to half of untreated cases.

With early diagnosis and treatment, the death rate goes down to five to 15 percent. These deaths typically occur within the first two days of onset (NINDS, 2011).

Ten to 20 percent of those who survive the disease will have lasting problems as a result. These include:

  • brain damage
  • hearing loss
  • learning disabilities

This disease is very dangerous even with prompt treatment. Don’t hesitate to go to the doctor or emergency room immediately if you think you might have meningococcal meningitis

How Can I Prevent Meningococcal Meningitis?

There is no single vaccine that can protect you from all forms of meningococcal meningitis. Instead, there are several vaccines made to protect you against different types of meningococcal meningitis.

The vaccines are generally recommended for people aged 11 to 18 years. People aged 19 to 21 who are enrolling in college should also get vaccinated.

Your doctor may recommend a vaccine in some other cases. For example, if you are planning to travel to a part of the world where meningococcal meningitis is endemic, you may be advised to get a vaccine first. Your doctor might also suggest the vaccine if you have had your spleen removed or if you have a chronic illness.

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