Meningococcal Meningitis

What is Meningococcal Meningitis

Meningococcal meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) around the brain and spinal cord. It is caused by a type of bacteria that can also infect the bloodstream. The bacteria can spread from person to person (are contagious) through close contact.

Meningococcal meningitis is a medical emergency. It can be life-threatening if it is not treated quickly with antibiotic medicines. Complications can include hearing loss and brain damage. Most cases of meningococcal meningitis can be prevented with a vaccination.

What are the causes?

This condition is caused by meningococcus bacteria (Neisseria meningitidis). Some people normally have meningococcus bacteria in their nose or throat. For some people, the bacteria do not cause problems. For others, the bacteria cause meningococcal meningitis. It is not known why some people who carry the bacteria get the disease and others do not.

Meningococcal meningitis is contagious through contact with respiratory secretions of an infected person, such as saliva. Most often, this condition spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It usually spreads only to people who are in close contact with the infected person for long periods of time, such as family members or roommates.

What increases the risk?

The following factors may make you more likely to develop this condition:

  • Young age. Children, teens, and young adults are more likely to get this condition than adults are.
  • Living close to many other people, such as in dormitories or military housing.
  • Having a medical condition that lowers the body’s ability to fight infection or take certain medicines.
  • Having recently visited sub-Saharan Africa.

What are the signs or symptoms?

Symptoms of this condition may develop suddenly. They may include:

  • High fever.
  • Stiff neck.
  • Sensitivity to light.
  • Headache.
  • Confusion.
  • Vomiting.

If the infection spreads to the blood (meningococcal septicemia), the following symptoms may develop:

  • Chills.
  • Fatigue.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Rapid breathing.
  • Red spots or purple blotches on the skin. These may look like tiny pinpoints.

How is this diagnosed?

This condition is diagnosed based on:

  • Your symptoms.
  • A physical exam.
  • Blood tests. You may have samples of blood and fluid that surround the brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid) removed. This is called a lumbar puncture. The samples of blood and cerebrospinal fluid are sent to a lab for testing to see if meningococcal bacteria will grow from them (cultures). If bacteria grow from the samples, that confirms the diagnosis.

How is this treated?

This condition is treated in a hospital with antibiotics.

  • You may begin taking these medicines right away, even before you get to the hospital.
  • The antibiotics may be given through an IV tube that is inserted into one of your veins.
  • Most people receive IV antibiotics for about 1 week.

Depending on your condition, you may need other treatments, including:

  • Fluids through an IV tube.
  • Oxygen.
  • Medicine to increase your blood pressure.
  • A machine to clean your blood (dialysis) if your kidneys are injured by the infection.
  • A machine to help you breathe (mechanical ventilation) if your lungs are injured by the infection.

Follow these instructions at home:

Medicines

  • Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your health care provider.
  • Take your antibiotic medicine as told by your health care provider. Do not stop taking the antibiotic even if you start to feel better.

General instructions

  • Tell everyone that you have had contact with recently that you have meningococcal meningitis. They may need to see a health care provider for treatment. Even people who do not get sick may need to take an antibiotic that will lower their chance of getting infected.
  • To prevent the infection from spreading:
    • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer.
    • Stay away from other people as much as possible until you are better.
    • Always cover your nose and mouth when you cough and sneeze.
  • Drink enough fluid to keep your urine clear or pale yellow.
  • Rest at home until you feel better. Return to your normal activities as told by your health care provider.
  • Keep all follow-up visits as told by your health care provider. This is important.

How is this prevented?

  • Talk with your health care provider about:
    • Getting the meningococcal vaccine to prevent meningitis.
    • Getting antibiotics if you are in close contact with someone who has meningitis.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your hands to your face when you have not washed your hands recently.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Disinfect counters and other surfaces if someone in your home is sick.
  • Stay home while you are sick, and try to stay away from others as much as possible to avoid spreading the infection.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough.

Contact a health care provider if:

  • You have a fever that does not get better with medicine.

Get help right away if:

  • You have a fever along with one of the following:
    • Severe headache.
    • Stiff neck.
    • Confusion.
    • Vomiting.
  • You suddenly lose hearing or vision.
  • You have a seizure.
  • You have trouble breathing.

These symptoms may represent a serious problem that is an emergency. Do not wait to see if the symptoms will go away. Get medical help right away. Call your local emergency services (911 in the U.S.). Do not drive yourself to the hospital.

Summary

  • Meningococcal meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) around the brain and spinal cord.
  • Meningococcal meningitis is a medical emergency. It can be life-threatening if it is not treated quickly with antibiotic medicines.
  • Meningococcal meningitis is contagious through contact with respiratory secretions of an infected person, such as saliva. Symptoms develop quickly.
  • Talk with your health care provider about getting the meningococcal vaccine to prevent meningitis.
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