Meningococcal meningitis is a rare infection of the protective covering of the brain and spinal cord.
Who is at risk?
The bacteria that cause meningococcal disease require prolonged close contact with a sick person’s saliva or other respiratory secretions to spread. The bacteria are not spread by casual contact like being in the same room as someone who is sick or handling items they touched. Close contacts include people in the same household, roommates, or anyone with direct contact with a patient's saliva (such as through kissing).
People who may have been exposed can be treated with medications and, when appropriate, post-exposure vaccination, to reduce the chance they will develop the disease or become severely ill. While community-wide vaccination is not necessary in response to an isolated case, a safe and effective vaccine is widely available for people who want to be vaccinated. Vaccination against meningitis lowers your risk of getting sick if you are exposed to the disease in the future.
While serious, cases of meningococcal disease are rare. The CDC reports rates of meningococcal disease have declined in the United States since the 1990s. In 2019, there were about 371 total cases of meningococcal disease reported in the U.S.
Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but rates of disease are highest in children younger than 1 year old, with a second peak in adolescence. Among teens and young adults, those 16 through 23 years old have the highest rates of meningococcal disease.
What causes Meningococcal Meningitis?
Meningococcal meningitis is caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. Meningococcal infection can cause meningitis (infection of the coverings around the brain and spinal cord) and/or bloodstream infection.
- Severe or unusual headache
- Stiff neck
Patients may also have nausea, vomiting, confusion, and sensitivity to light. Patients with blood stream infection can also develop a painful purple or dark red rash. Even with treatment, invasive meningococcal disease can be deadly or cause long-lasting disabilities.
What can you do?
Seek medical attention: Individuals with symptoms of meningococcal meningitis should seek urgent medical attention. Symptoms can occur one to ten days after exposure, but three to four days after exposure is more typical.
Prevention: There are two types of meningococcal vaccines licensed in the United States and recommended for preteens, teens, and people at increased risk due to a meningococcal disease outbreak, certain medical conditions, travel plans to areas where the disease is common, and jobs working with the bacteria. Talk to your healthcare provider if you think you may need vaccination.