Meningococcal Meningitis: Symptoms & Treatment

Meningococcal meningitis is a rare type of bacterial meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacteria. It causes a serious inflammation in the membranes that cover the brain and is associated with symptoms like a very high fever, intense headache and nausea. 

Generally, this type of meningococcal disease is more common in the spring and winter and it particularly affects children and older adults. However it can also occur in middle age, especially in patients with a history of a weakened immune system. 

Meningococcal meningitis is curable, but treatment should be initiated promptly to reduce the risk of life-threatening neurological sequelae. If you suspect you may have meningitis, you should proceed to the nearest emergency room for assessment and treatment.

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Main symptoms 

The most common symptoms of meningococcal meningitis include: 

  • High fever above 38ºC (or 100.4ºF)
  • Intense headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Neck stiffness, with difficult bending the neck
  • Drowsiness and fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Sound and light sensitivity 
  • Bruising 

In babies, meningococcal meningitis can cause a bulging fontanelle, agitation, inconsolable crying, body rigidity and seizures. Because it is difficult to determine why babies are crying a lot of the time, it is best to consult a pediatrician when you are unsure (especially if the baby presents with other symptoms like fever or visible changes in the head). 

Confirming a diagnosis 

Meningococcal disease is considered to be a medical emergency, therefore you should proceed to a hospital immediately if you suspect you may have been infected. In these cases, the doctor may investigate for meningitis based on symptoms, however a diagnosis is confirmed based on the results of a lumbar puncture. Spinal fluid is collected during this procedure and the presence of bacteria is then confirmed. 

Possible causes 

Meningococcal meningitis is an infection in the meninges, the membranes that cover your brain. It is caused by the presence of Neisseria Meningitidis bacteria. Generally, this bacteria will infect other parts of the body, like your skin, intestines or lungs, before it reaches your brain. Once it has spread, it causes severe inflammation in the lining of the brain.

In rare cases, the bacteria is able to penetrate the lining and reach the brain tissue, especially if there is a history of severe head trauma, like a car accident or brain surgery. 

Treatment options

Treatment for meningococcal meningitis should be started as soon as possible. It involves hospital admission for IV antibiotics (like ceftriaxone), given for about 7 days. 

During treatment, family members and visitors should use masks when visiting the patient, as this bacteria can be transmitted through respiratory secretion. Total isolation is not necessary, however.

How to prevent infection

You can prevent meningococcal disease by ensuring you are up-to-date with all meningitis-related vaccines. Spread of this bacteria can also be reduced by: 

  • Avoiding over-crowded places 
  • Ensuring adequate ventilation in your home
  • Avoiding closed spaces
  • Ensuring adequate body hygiene 

If you have been in close contact with a confirmed bacterial meningitis diagnosis, you should see your doctor to rule out whether you have also been affected. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics if necessary.

Possible complications

If bacteria causes moderate to severe swelling of the cerebral membranes, and it is left untreated, you are at a higher risk for developing complications like: 

  • Vision or hearing loss 
  • Serious cerebral conditions
  • Difficulty learning
  • Muscle paralysis
  • Cardiac problems 

These complications usually emerge if treatment was not started soon enough or if it was insufficient.