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Meningococcal Disease

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is an illness that is caused by bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis, also known as meningococcus.

What causes meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. About 1 out of 10 people have this type of bacteria in the back of their nose and throat. People carry these bacteria for a short period of time with no signs or symptoms of disease. However, in rare cases, this bacterium can get into the blood or the lining of the brain and spinal cord and cause more serious illness.  

How is the bacterium transmitted?

Meningococcal disease is spread from person to person. The bacteria are spread by exchanging respiratory and throat secretions (saliva or spit) during close (within 6 feet) contact, especially if living in the same household. The bacteria are not spread by casual contact or by simply being in the same room of a person with meningococcal disease.

​An infected person can spread bacterium by​An infected person CANNOT spread the bacterium by


​ ​ breathing ​

​sharing water bottles
​sharing eating/drinking utensils
​sharing cigarettes

​ ​

talking ​

​coughing or sneezing

Who can get meningococcal disease?

Anyone can get it. However, there are certain people who are at increased risk for meningococcal disease such as:
  • Infants, adolescents and young adults
  • Large groups of people that gather/live together such as on college campuses
  • People with certain medical conditions such as not having a spleen or having a complement component deficiency (an inherited immune disorder)
  • Travelers to areas with high incidence rates of meningitis (such as certain countries in Africa and in Saudi Arabia)
What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal infection can cause meningitis (an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord). Symptoms include fever, headache, and stiff neck. There are often additional symptoms, such as:
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Photophobia (increased sensitivity to light)
  • Altered mental status (confusion)
The symptoms of meningococcal meningitis can appear quickly or over several hours or days. Typically they develop within 3-7 days after exposure, but can occur as long as 10 days after exposure.

In newborns and infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to notice. The infant may appear to be slow or inactive, irritable, vomiting or feeding poorly. If your infant appears ill, you should contact the child's healthcare provider.

How do I find out if I have meningococcal disease?

If meningococcal disease is suspected, talk to your health care provider immediately. Your health care provider will determine if you need to be tested for meningococcal disease. Samples of blood or cerebrospinal fluid (fluid around the brain and spinal cord) are collected and sent to a laboratory for testing. It is important to know if it is meningococcal disease to make sure the right treatment is given. Early diagnosis and treatment are very important.

Can meningococcal disease be treated?

Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics. It is important that treatment be started as soon as possible. Antibiotic treatment reduces the chance of severe outcomes. Even with treatment, about 15 of every 100 people who recover from meningococcal meningitis will have long-term problems, such as loss of an arm or leg, deafness and nervous system problems.

Can meningococcal disease be prevented?

Yes. There are vaccines that help protect against the most common Neisseria meningitidis bacteria seen in the United States. Check with your healthcare provider to see if you should be vaccinated. 

If you have been in very close contact with someone who has meningococcal illness, you may need to take a preventive antibiotic. You should contact your healthcare provider for guidance.

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