Meningococcal Infections Symptoms & Causes

Meningococcal infections are caused by a group of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. The most common forms of meningococcal infections include meningitis (infection of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord) and blood stream infections. Meningococcal infections are rare and may be serious.

Types of meningococcal infections

The most common forms of Meningococcal infections include:

  • Meningitis
    • infection of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord
  • Meningococcemia
    • a blood stream infection
    • potentially life-threatening
    • symptoms may occur abruptly and progress rapidly
    • immediate intervention and treatment are usually necessary
    • nearly 20 percent of children who develop meningococcemia do not survive

What causes meningococcal infections?

The Neisseria meningitidis bacteria are spread through close contact with infected people. Droplets in the air from a sneeze or close conversation can be inhaled and may cause infection. In rare cases, the bacteria grow rapidly causing serious illness in both children and adults.

Are meningococcal infections common?

Meningococcal infections are usually uncommon, but potentially fatal. More specifically:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 2,600 cases of invasive meningococcal disease in the United States each year.
  • They occur most frequently during the late winter and early spring months.
  • They are most common in children, but also occur in adolescents and adults.

What are the symptoms ofmeningococcal infections?

While symptoms vary from child-to-child, the most common include:

  • For meningococcal meningitis
    • In infants (symptoms are difficult to pinpoint)
      • irritability
      • sleeping all the time
      • refusing bottle
      • cries when picked up or being held
      • inconsolable crying
      • bulging fontanelle (soft spot on an infants head)
      • behavior changes
    • In children older than one year
      • neck and/or back pain
      • headache
      • nausea and vomiting
      • neck stiffness
  • For meningococcemia
    • fever
    • chills
    • sore throat
    • headache
    • aching muscles and joints
    • exhaustion and weariness
    • rash, which may appear small, red flat or raised, fine at first and then changes to larger red patches or purple lesions similar in appearance to large bruises
    • low blood pressure
    • very low urine output
    • impaired blood clotting that can lead to internal and external bleeding

Can you prevent meningococcal infections?

The meningococcal vaccine helps prevent most strains of meningococcus bacteria. It is normally given during the routine pre­adolescent immunization visit (when a child is 11 or 12 years old).