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Essential Facts About Meningococcal Meningitis

You’ve likely heard about meningitis outbreaks — especially when they occur on college campuses — but you may not be exactly sure what the disease is.

Meningitis is an infection of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Without proper treatment, it can be deadly.

What Is Meningococcal Meningitis?

There are three basic types of meningitis: fungal, viral, and bacterial.

  • Fungal meningitis is rare and usually occurs in people with compromised immune systems.
  • Viral meningitis is milder and often occurs with other illnesses, such as mumps, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and herpes simplex.
  • Bacterial meningitis is the most serious form, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders. Meningococcal meningitis is one of the three most common types of bacterial meningitis.

Meningococcal meningitis affects about 1,000 people in the United States every year. In children and teens, it is the most common type of bacterial meningitis.

Meningococcal meningitis occurs when the bacteria that cause meningitis, Neisseria meningitidis, spread to the nervous system through the bloodstream. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in 10 people are carriers of the bacteria. The organism spreads through close, repeated contact with another person’s bodily fluids, usually by coughing, sneezing, or kissing.

Meningococcal Meningitis Symptoms

Act quickly if you or a loved one develop these symptoms of meningococcal meningitis:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty staying awake
  • High fever
  • Joint pain
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Red or purplish rash
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Severe, sudden headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Constant crying (in babies)
  • A bulge at the “soft spot” on top of the head (in babies)

Risk Factors

Some people are more at risk to develop meningococcal meningitis than others. Risk factors include:

  • Being younger than five years old
  • Having a condition that causes a compromised immune system, such as HIV
  • Living in a group setting, such as a college dorm or military base
  • Not being vaccinated against meningitis
  • Traveling to parts of the world, such as Africa, where meningococcal disease is common
  • Working in a lab where you’re exposed to meningococcal bacteria

Treatment Options

If you or a loved one is showing symptoms of meningococcal meningitis, do not wait to seek treatment. Visit the emergency department or call 911 immediately. The hospital can perform a test to confirm the diagnosis and start to administer antibiotics.

If you’re not ill but you’ve been exposed to someone diagnosed with meningitis, see a doctor. The CDC recommends taking an antibiotic as a precaution to prevent infection, which your doctor can prescribe.

The best way to prevent meningococcal meningitis is by getting the vaccine, so talk to your pediatrician. Children should be vaccinated for meningitis at age 11 or 12, with a booster shot around age 16.

Potential Complications of Meningococcal Meningitis

Meningococcal meningitis symptoms should be taken seriously. The illness can be fatal or leave permanent damage. According to the CDC, 10 percent to         15 percent of those who contract meningococcal meningitis die. About 15 percent of those who survive are left with disabilities, such as brain damage, hearing loss, limb loss, and kidney failure.

To find out more about meningococcal meningitis and treatment, contact the UPMC Center of Care for Infectious Diseases. To schedule an appointment, call 412-647-7228 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.