What are meningococcal infections?
Meningococcal infections are caused by bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. The most common forms of meningococcal infections are meningitis (infection of the
membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord) and meningococcemia (blood stream infections). Meningococcal infections are uncommon, but can be fatal.
These infections occur most often during the late winter and early spring months.
Children are more commonly affected, but the illness also occurs in teens and adults.
People living in crowded group settings such as school dorms or military barracks
are also at risk.
How are meningococcal infections transmitted?
The Neisseria meningitidis bacteria are spread through close contact with an infected person. Droplets in the
air from a sneeze or close conversation can be inhaled and may cause infection. Most
people who acquire and carry the bacteria in their nose and throat never get symptoms.
In rare cases, the bacteria multiply rapidly, causing serious illness in both children
What are the symptoms of meningococcal infections?
These are the most common symptoms:
In children older than 1 year, symptoms may include:
In infants, symptoms are hard to pinpoint and may include:
Listlessness and sleeping all the time
Refusing a bottle
Crying when picked up or being held
Can't be comforted while crying
Bulging fontanel (soft spot on an infant's head)
Meningococcemia is a life-threatening illness. Symptoms may occur suddenly and get
worse quickly. Immediate treatment is needed.
The following are the most common symptoms:
Headache, especially when flexing the neck by moving the chin toward the chest
Sensitivity to light
Aching muscles and joints
Malaise (not feeling well)
Exhaustion and weariness
Rash, which may appear as follows:
Small, red, flat or raised spots
Progression of rash to larger red patches or purple lesions (similar in appearance
to large bruises)
As the illness worsens quickly, symptoms may include:
Low blood pressure
Very low urine output
Shock, a serious state marked by decreased blood pressure and decreased blood flow
to important organs such as the kidneys, liver, and brain
The symptoms of meningococcal meningitis and meningococcemia may look like other conditions
or medical problems. Always see your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
If your child appears seriously ill or is getting ill very quickly, he or she needs
immediate medical attention.
How are meningococcal meningitis and meningococcemia diagnosed?
Your child's healthcare provider will review your child's medical history and do a
physical exam. Other tests may include:
Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). A special needle is placed into the lower back, into
the spinal canal. This is the area around the spinal cord. A small amount of cerebral
spinal fluid (CSF) can be removed and sent for testing to determine if there is an
infection. CSF is the fluid that bathes your child's brain and spinal cord.
Culture of skin lesions or rash (not common)
Other blood tests
What is the treatment for meningococcal infections?
Your child's healthcare provider will consider your child's age, overall health, and
other factors when advising treatment. Prompt treatment is needed with meningococcal
infections. Antibiotics (such as penicillin) are most often used. If a child has severe
allergies to penicillin, other antibiotics may be used to treat the infection. Five
to 7 days of antibiotic therapy is usually effective. A child with meningococcal meningitis
or meningococcemia will usually require IV antibiotics and close observation in a
hospital or intensive care unit (ICU).
Other treatment for meningococcal infections are aimed at treating the symptoms. A
child with severe infection may need supplemental oxygen or be put on a ventilator to
assist with breathing.
How can meningococcal infections be prevented?
The CDC recommends meningococcal vaccine, meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4) for
all children 11 to 18 years old. Dosages of MCV4 are recommended for children between
11 and 12 years of age and again at 16 to18 years of age. If the vaccine was not given
at age 11 to 12, it should be given when starting high school, with a booster dose
a few years later. High-risk infants and young children can receive meningococcal
vaccines starting at age 2 months. Other high-risk children and teens who need immunization
with MCV4 include the following:
People who have damaged spleens or who do not have spleens
College students not already immunized in high school (immunization of college students
is recommended by the American College Health Association)
People who are traveling to countries where the meningococcal infections are common
Family members or those in close contact with people with meningitis
People with a weak immune system
A hospitalized child will be isolated for 24 hours after antibiotics have been started.
Family members or people who have been in close contact with a child with meningococcal
disease may also need antibiotics. If you have questions about exposure, please consult
your child's healthcare provider. The CDC recommends the following contacts be treated
if exposed to the bacteria:
Household contacts, especially young children
Child care or nursery school contacts, during previous 7 days
Direct exposure to the infected child's body fluids through kissing or sharing toothbrushes
or eating utensils
People who frequently sleep in the same area as the infected child
Report cases of meningococcal disease to your local public health department. Staff
will provide education to you and your family, as well as to the public.