What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is caused by strains of the bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis. It is transmitted through close and prolonged contact with mucus from an infected person.
The subtypes are given different letters of the alphabet. The main types seen in Australia are Meningococcus B, W and Y.

Meningococcal disease is a rare, but serious and life-threatening, infection. Symptoms appear suddenly and people can die very quickly without medical help.

Long-term effects of the disease include:

  • loss of arms and legs
  • deformed arms and legs
  • scars on the skin
  • deafness in one or both ears
  • headaches
  • ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • blurred or double vision
  • aches and stiffness in the joints
  • learning difficulties.

Symptoms

Meningococcal disease has a range of symptoms, depending on its severity. Babies and young children can have different symptoms to older children and adults.

If you have any of the following symptoms, you should seek urgent medical treatment:

  • rash of red or purple pinprick spots, or larger bruise-like areas
  • fever
  • headache
  • neck stiffness
  • discomfort when you look at bright light
  • nausea or vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • feeling very, very sick.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • loss of appetite or refusing to feed (in young children)
  • irritability or fretfulness
  • confusion
  • drowsiness
  • extreme tiredness or floppiness (in young children)
  • aching or sore muscles
  • painful or swollen joints
  • difficulty walking, and maybe collapsing
  • grunting or moaning
  • difficulty talking
  • having fits or twitching (in young children).

Who is at risk

Meningococcal disease can affect people of any age. The following people have a higher risk of being infected:

  • young children under the age of 5
  • teenagers and young adults between 15 and 24 years old
  • people living with patients who have meningococcal disease
  • people who are exposed to cigarette smoke
  • travellers to countries with high rates of meningococcal disease
  • people who have a weakened immune system due to illness or injury.

How it spreads

Meningococcal disease spreads when people are in very close contact with each other for a long time – for example, kissing intimately or living in the same household.

The bacteria can only live outside of the body for a few seconds, so you can’t catch meningococcal disease from casual contact or from the environment. The bacteria do not spread easily by sharing food or drinks.

Between 10% and 20% of people carry the bacteria in their nose or throat without showing any signs of illness.

Prevention

Meningococcal disease can be prevented with vaccination. There are different types of meningococcal bacteria. Different vaccines are needed for the different types.

If you have close contact with someone who has meningococcal disease, your doctor may give you antibiotics to prevent you getting infected.

Find out more about getting vaccinated against meningococcal disease.

Diagnosis

Early diagnosis of meningococcal disease is very important so treatment can start quickly. It is sometimes difficult to diagnose early because the early symptoms of meningococcal disease can be similar to other illnesses.

Seek medical help immediately if you think you or one of your family members has meningococcal disease. If necessary, call an ambulance or go to the emergency department of your local hospital.

Your doctor can diagnose meningococcal disease by:

  • asking about your symptoms
  • taking a blood, spinal or joint fluid sample for testing.

If you have meningococcal disease your doctor may be required to notify your state or territory health department.

Treatment

Meningococcal disease is treated with antibiotics, usually in hospital. Some people will need treatment in intensive care.

Contacts

National Immunisation Hotline

Resources

Meningococcal vaccines for Australians
Meningococcal vaccines – frequently asked questions

Last updated: 
9 July 2019