Understanding Meningococcal Disease

Meningococcal disease is a very serious and potentially life-threatening infection caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, known as meningococcus. The bacteria can cause meningitis, an infection of the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord, and septicaemia, a bloodstream infection. Meningococcal disease is an uncommon infection but can be very severe, with life-changing consequences. It can lead to disabilities and even death.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?

The symptoms of meningococcal disease can vary from person to person and may start off quite mild. Symptoms of meningitis usually appear suddenly and can include:

  • sudden fever
  • headache
  • sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • stiff neck
  • dislike of bright lights (opthalmoplegia)
  • drowsiness
  • confusion
  • vomiting
  • aching joints
  • unusual spots or rash on the skin
  • refusal to eat
  • fits (seizures)

Symptoms of septicaemia (blood poisoning) may include:

  • lethargy or confusion
  • dislike of bright lights
  • drowsiness
  • fits
  • cold hands and feet
  • rapid breathing
  • bruising of the skin
  • pale or bluish skin
  • aching joints or abdominal pain
  • purple or red pinprick spots on the skin
  • unusual areas of red or purple bruising on the skin that may worsen as time goes on

These symptoms may rapidly become very severe and need immediate medical attention.

Treatment of meningococcal disease

Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics but it is important that this is done quickly in order to help reduce the risk of long-term complications. Vaccines can help to protect against certain types of the disease, although this will not protect against all of the possible combinations of the disease.

In some cases, meningococcal disease may be serious enough to require hospitalisation, support from a range of medical professionals, and long-term treatment. Some people may also need to be admitted to intensive care units.