Meningococcal meningitis is a serious bacterial infection. It affects the protective lining of the brain and the spinal cord or “meninges.” It’s usually spread via saliva or mucus. Kissing, living in close or communal spaces, or sharing cups and eating utensils are all ways to get the infection.

The most common and recognizable symptoms of meningitis include:

  • sudden high fever and chills
  • headache
  • stiff neck
  • purple areas on the skin that look like bruises

The symptoms usually come on suddenly, within one week of being exposed to the bacteria.

Other less common symptoms of meningitis are:

  • confusion, particularly in older adults
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sensitivity to light
  • rash, usually a symptom appearing during later stages
  • drowsiness and fatigue
  • seizure
  • coma

Children tend to display different symptoms of meningitis than adults. A stiff neck is a symptom in adults not often present in children. Symptoms in children also usually progress gradually.

Some symptoms common to young children include:

  • irritability
  • partial seizures
  • red or purple rashlike areas on the skin
  • projectile vomiting
  • difficulty with feeding
  • high-pitched crying

There can be serious complications if meningitis goes untreated or if treatment is delayed. These complications may include:

  • seizures
  • brain damage
  • hearing loss
  • hydrocephalus, or fluid buildup and brain swelling
  • myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart if the infection reaches it
  • kidney failure
  • death

There’s a vaccine to protect people at risk for contracting meningitis. You should consider a vaccine if you fall into one of these categories:

  • new college student moving into a dorm
  • new boarding school student
  • new military recruit
  • frequent traveler, especially those visiting certain parts of the world, particularly Africa

Antibiotics can be given to all those that might have been affected in the event of an outbreak. Because of this, treatment can begin even before people develop symptoms.

A diagnosis of meningitis can be based partly on a clinical exam. The exam might include a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap.

The diagnosis can be confirmed through a culture of the spinal fluid. Often, the bacteria in the spinal fluid can even be seen under a microscope.

Other signs of meningitis include protein levels that are higher than normal, and glucose levels that are lower than normal.

An antibiotic medication is the primary treatment for meningitis. The first choice is either ceftriaxone or cefotaxime. Penicillin or ampicillin may be used as alternatives.

People are usually admitted into a hospital for treatment and observation. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to treat complications from meningitis.

It’s very important to go to the doctor immediately if you suspect you have meningitis. This illness is potentially fatal. Also, call your doctor if you have been in close contact with someone who you know has meningitis.

It is important to contact your doctor even if you don’t display any symptoms. And you should definitely seek treatment if you experience any symptoms, even if you’ve been vaccinated. The vaccine doesn’t prevent all cases or types of meningococcal meningitis.