Meningococcemia

Written by Gretchen Holm | Published on July 20, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Meningococcemia?

Meningococcemia is a bacterial infection caused by the Neisseria meningitides bacteria. This is the same type of bacteria that causes some types of meningitis. When the bacteria infect the membranes (meninges) that cover the brain and spinal cord, the infection is called meningitis. When the infection remains in the blood, but does not infect the brain or spinal cord, it is called meningococcemia.

Neisseria meningitides bacteria are common in your upper respiratory tract and do not necessarily cause illness. The disease spread from person to person when someone infected with the bacteria sneezes or coughs. Although anyone can get meningococcemia, it is most common in babies, children, and young adults.

An infection by Neisseria meningitidis, whether it becomes meningitis or meningococcemia, is considered a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention.

What Causes Meningococcemia?

Neisseria meningitidis, the bacteria that causes meningococcemia, can harmlessly live in your upper respiratory tract. However, simply being exposed to this germ is not enough to cause this disease. According to the Indiana State Department of Health, up to 10 percent of people may carry these bacteria (ISDH)—and not all of these people become sick.

An infected person can spread these bacteria through coughing and sneezing.

What Are the Symptoms of Meningococcemia?

You will generally only have a few symptoms at first. These symptoms are common and include:

  • a fever
  • a headache
  • a rash consisting of small spots
  • nausea

You might also feel irritable or anxious.

As the disease progresses, you will develop more serious symptoms. These include blood clots and patches of bleeding under your skin.

As the condition progresses, you may be lethargic or slip into a stupor. You may also go into shock.

How Is Meningococcemia Diagnosed?

Meningitis is usually diagnosed through blood tests. Your doctor will take a sample of your blood and then do a blood culture on it to determine if bacteria is present. Your doctor might perform the same test using fluid from your spine instead of your blood. In this case, the test is called a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) culture. He or she will get CSF from a spinal tap (lumbar puncture). Blood is usually drawn from a vein in your arm or hand.

Other tests your doctor might perform are:

  • skin biopsy
  • blood clotting tests
  • complete blood count (CBC)

He or she might also perform tests on your urine.

How Is Meningococcemia Treated?

Meningococcemia must be treated immediately. You will be admitted to the hospital and possibly kept in an isolated room to stop the bacteria from spreading.

You will be given antibiotics through a vein (intravenously) to begin fighting the infection. You will probably also receive intravenous fluids.

Other treatments depend on the symptoms you have developed. If you have blood clots, for example, you will receive care to treat them. If you are having difficulty breathing, you will receive oxygen. If your blood pressure becomes too low, you will receive medication to help treat that issue.

Meningococcemia can sometimes lead to bleeding disorders. If this occurs, your doctor or healthcare provider might give you platelet replacement therapy.

In some cases, your doctor might also wish to give your close contacts antibiotics, even if they show no symptoms. This can help prevent them from developing the disease.

Who Is Likely to Develop Meningococcemia?

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, around half of the total number of cases of meningococcal disease (which includes meningococcal meningitis and meningococcemia) occur in children under 4 years old (IDPH).

If you have recently moved into a group living situation (such as a dormitory) you are more likely to develop these conditions. If you are planning to enter into such a living situation, your doctor may tell you to get vaccinated against this condition.

You are also at greater risk if you live with or have been in very close contact with someone who has the disease. Consider speaking to your doctor if this is the case. He or she may choose to give you preventive antibiotics.

Tips to Prevent Meningococcemia

There is no sure way to prevent meningococcemia.

A vaccine exists, but it is only effective against some types of the bacteria that cause this condition. Furthermore, most doctors only give this vaccine to people in certain categories such as teenagers and people about to move into a dormitory for the first time.

You can help reduce your risk of meningococcemia by avoiding people who are coughing, sneezing, or showing other signs of illness. This means not sharing anything that comes into contact with the mouth unless it has been washed after it was last used.

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