Meningitis - meningococcal
Meningococcal meningitis is a bacterial infection that results in swelling and irritation (inflammation) of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.
Meningococcal meningitis is caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis (also known as meningococcus).
Most cases of meningococcal meningitis occur in children and teens. Meningococcus is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in children and a leading cause of bacterial meningitis in adults.
The infection occurs more often in winter or spring. It may cause local epidemics at boarding schools, college dormitories, or military bases.
Risk factors include recent exposure to meningococcal meningitis and a recent upper respiratory infection.
Symptoms usually come on quickly, and may include:
- Fever and chills
- Mental status changes
- Nausea and vomiting
- Purple, bruise-like areas (purpura)
- Rash, pinpoint red spots (petechiae)
- Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
- Severe headache
- Stiff neck (meningismus)
Other symptoms that can occur with this disease:
- Bulging fontanelles in infants
- Decreased consciousness
- Poor feeding or irritability in children
- Rapid breathing
- Unusual posture with the head and neck arched backwards (opisthotonus)
Exams and Tests
The doctor or nurse will examine the patient. This will show:
- Fast heart rate
- Mental status changes
- Stiff neck
If the health care provider thinks meningitis is possible, a lumbar puncture ("spinal tap") should be done to remove a sample of spinal fluid (cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF) for testing.
Tests that may be done include:
Antibiotics should be started as soon as possible. Ceftriaxone is one of the most commonly used antibiotics for meningococcal meningitis. Penicillin in high doses is almost always effective, too.
If the patient is allergic to penicillin, chloramphenicol may be used. Sometimes corticosteroids may be used, especially in children.
People in close contact with someone who has meningococcal meningitis should be given antibiotics to prevent infection. Such people include:
- Household members
- Roommates in dormitories
- Those who come into close and long-term contact with an infected person
Early treatment improves the outcome. Death is possible. Young children and adults over 50 have the highest risk of death.
- Brain damage
- Hearing loss
- Subdural effusion (buildup of fluid between the skull and brain)
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call the local emergency number (such as 911) or go to an emergency room if you suspect meningitis in a young child who has the following symptoms:
- Feeding difficulties
- High-pitched cry
- Persistent unexplained fever
Call the local emergency number if you develop any of the serious symptoms listed above. Meningitis can quickly become a life-threatening illness.
All family and close contacts (especially in health care or school settings) of people with this type of meningitis should begin antibiotic treatment as soon as possible to prevent spread of the infection. Ask your health care provider about this during the first visit.
Close contacts in the same household, school, or day care center should be watched for early signs of the disease as soon as the first case is diagnosed. Always use good hygiene habits, such as washing hands before and after changing a diaper, or after using the bathroom.
Vaccines for meningococcus are effective for controlling epidemics. They are currently recommended for:
- College students in their first year living in dormitories
- Military recruits
- Travelers to certain parts of the world
Prober CG, Dyner L. Central nervous system infections. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 595.
Swartz MN. Meningitis: bacterial, viral, and other. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2007:chap 437.
Reviewed By: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.