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Meningococcal disease

Published on April 12, 2024 at 8:00 / Updated on May 1, 2024 at 8:01

Meningococcus is a bacteria that can cause a variety of diseases, including meningitis and septicemia. Meningitis is an infection of the lining covering the brain and spinal cord (meninges). Septicemia is a blood infection.

There are several types of meningococci, but the main ones are A, B, C, W, and Y. In Canada, B and C are the most prevalent, but type B is the most common cause of infection. It tends to affect children under 2 and young adults, but anyone can get infected.

Symptoms of meningococcal disease usually appear 1-10 days (4 days on average) after exposure to the bacteria.

Meningococcal infection can cause the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Irritability or restlessness
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Stiff neck
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Joint pain
  • Seizures
  • A dark red rash

In some people, the infection can enter the bloodstream and cause meningococcal septicemia (a bloodstream infection). In such cases, symptoms can rapidly worsen and the person can become very ill in just a few hours. The majority of people who do not receive immediate treatment for meningococcal disease die. Even with treatment, the infection can lead to death or serious complications.

Meningococcal infection can lead to the following complications:

  • Deafness
  • Limb amputation
  • Permanent brain damage
  • Death

Causes and triggers

Meningococcus is another name for the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. It is spread through secretions from the nose and throat. Transmission occurs through contact with an infected person. Contact can take place in various ways, including the following:

  • Kissing
  • Sharing objects (e.g., utensils, drinking glasses)
  • Coughing
  • Living in close quarters

Affected individuals are contagious 7 days before the onset of symptoms and up to 24 hours after receiving effective treatment. Carriers of the bacteria can show no symptoms and still spread the disease.


Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency. It must be treated with antibiotics given by vein as soon as possible. The sooner antibiotics are administered after the onset of symptoms, the more effective they are. Cases usually require hospitalization in an intensive care unit.

The best way to protect yourself from meningococcal infection is to get vaccinated. The type C vaccine is part of the vaccination program. Other vaccines may be recommended in certain situations.

Individuals who have been in close contact with an infected person may also be given antibiotics or a vaccine to prevent the spread of the bacteria.

When should I see a health care professional?

Go to the emergency room or call 911 as soon as possible if you have symptoms of meningococcal meningitis.

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