What is meningococcemia?

Meningococcemia is a rare infection caused by the Neisseria meningitidis bacteria. This is the same type of bacteria that can cause meningitis.

When the bacteria infect the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, it’s called meningitis. When the infection remains in the blood but doesn’t infect the brain or spinal cord, it’s called meningococcemia.

It’s also possible to have both meningitis and meningococcemia at the same time. In this case, the bacteria appears in the bloodstream first and then passes into the brain.

Neisseria meningitidis bacteria are common in the upper respiratory tract and don’t necessarily cause illness. Although anyone can get meningococcemia, it’s 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.

Neisseria meningitidis, the bacteria that cause meningococcemia, can live harmlessly in your upper respiratory tract. Simply being exposed to this germ isn’t enough to cause disease. Up to 10 percent of people may carry these bacteria. Fewer than 1 percent of those carriers become sick.

A person with this infection can spread the bacteria through coughing and sneezing.

Around half of the total number of cases of meningococcal disease occur in children under 4 years old. This figure includes both meningitis and meningococcemia.

If you’ve recently moved into a group living situation, such as a dormitory, you’re more likely to develop the condition. If you’re planning to enter into such a living situation, your doctor may tell you to get vaccinated against this condition.

You’re also at an increased risk if you live with or have been in very close contact with someone who has the disease. Speak with your doctor if this is the case. They may choose to give you prophylactic, or preventive, antibiotics.

You may only have a few symptoms initially. Common early symptoms include:

As the disease progresses, you may develop more serious symptoms, including:

Symptoms of meningococcemia may resemble those of other conditions, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), toxic shock syndrome (TSS), and rheumatic fever (RF). Learn about the symptoms of meningitis.

Meningococcemia is usually diagnosed through blood tests. Your doctor will take a sample of your blood and then do a blood culture to determine if bacteria are present.

Your doctor may perform a culture using fluid from your spine instead of your blood. In this case, the test is called a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) culture. Your doctor will get CSF from a spinal tap, or lumbar puncture.

Other tests your doctor might perform include:

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

You’ll be given antibiotics through a vein to begin fighting the infection. You may also receive intravenous (IV) fluids.

Other treatments depend on the symptoms you’ve developed. If you’re having difficulty breathing, you’ll receive oxygen. If your blood pressure becomes too low, you’ll most likely receive medication. Fludrocortisone and midodrine are two medications used to treat low blood pressure.

Meningococcemia can lead to bleeding disorders. If this occurs, your doctor may give you platelet replacement therapy.

In some cases, your doctor may also wish to give your close contacts prophylactic antibiotics, even if they show no symptoms. This can prevent them from developing the disease. Prescribed antibiotics may include rifampin (Rifadin), ciprofloxacin (Cipro), or ceftriaxone (Rocephin).

Meningococcemia can affect your blood’s ability to clot, resulting in bleeding disorders.

It can also sometimes occur with meningitis. Complications associated with meningitis include hearing loss, brain damage, and gangrene. In some cases, meningitis can be fatal.

Practicing healthy hygiene can decrease the risk of infection. This includes washing hands thoroughly and covering your mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing.

You can also help reduce your risk of infection by avoiding people who are coughing, sneezing, or showing other signs of illness. Also, don’t share personal items with people who are sick. This means not sharing anything that comes into contact with the mouth unless it’s been washed after it was last used.

If you’ve been exposed to a person who is infected, your doctor may recommend preventive antibiotics. This will reduce your chances of getting the disease.

Your doctor may recommend that you get a vaccination. There are three types of vaccinations available in the United States. Vaccination is recommended for those at increased risk for infection, such as teenagers, college students, or people about to move into a group living situation for the first time. Talk to your doctor about possible vaccination options.