Meningococcal disease is a vaccine-preventable illness caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. The disease is serious and can be fatal, though about 90% of patients recover with antibiotics.
Many people confuse meningitis and meningococcal disease, but the two terms are different. Meningitis is one way meningococcal disease can affect the body. Meningitis is an infection of the fluids that line brain and spinal cord. Bacteremia, or a blood infection, is just one other way that meningococcal disease can affect the body. Causes of meningitis include viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites, amoebas and injuries.
Usually it takes three to four days for signs of illness to show up after being exposed to Neisseria meningitidis, known as "meningococcal bacteria”, but it can take up to ten days.
How is meningococcal disease spread?
Meningococcal disease spreads when an infected person comes into contact with an infected person's nose or throat fluids (droplets from a sneeze, spit, saliva). This happens through close contact, such as:
- Living in the same household
- Coughs and sneezes that are not covered
- Sharing silverware or plates
- Sharing drinking containers (e.g. cups, beer or soda cans)
- Sharing smoking devices (e.g. cigarettes, joints, e-cigarettes)
Meningococcal disease can spread until the bacteria are no longer in the nose or mouth; it can also spread up to 24 hours after antibiotics are started. It is not as easily spread as the common cold or flu. Meningococcal bacteria are not spread through casual contact or breathing the air where an infected person has been.
Signs and symptoms of illness
Meningococcal disease can progress quickly. Noticing the illness early can prevent serious disability and even death. Early signs of illness are similar to those of other common illnesses and may be hard to recognize.
Meningitis is the most common way meningococcal disease affects the body. Signs of meningitis include:
- Stiff neck
- Sensitivity to light
Meningococcemia is a blood infection caused by meningococcal bacteria. This is the most severe risk and can cause clotting of blood vessels, extremely low blood pressure and organ failure. Signs of meningococcemia include:
- Shaking chills
- Severe aches and pains in muscles, joints, chest or belly
- Rapid breathing
Identification of close contacts is important to determine those requiring chemoprophylaxis.
High-risk contacts for whom chemoprophylaxis is recommended include:
- Household contacts, especially young children less than 2 years old.
- Child care, nursery school, preschool, and babysitting contacts in the 7 days before onset of illness.
- Anyone who had direct contact with the case's oral secretions through kissing, sharing toothbrushes, or sharing eating utensils any time during 7 days before onset of illness.
- Anyone who performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on or was unprotected during oral intubation of the case any time during 7 days before onset of illness.
- Anyone who frequently sleeps or eats in the same dwelling as the case 7 days before onset of illness.
- Passengers seated directly next to the case during airline flights lasting more than 8 hours.
Low-risk contacts for whom chemoprophylaxis is not recommended include:
- Persons having only casual contact with the case and no direct contact with oral secretions (e.g., school or work mates).
- Persons who had contact only with a high-risk contact (i.e., no direct contact with the case).
- Healthcare personnel who did not have contact with the case's oral secretions.
When to seek care
People who notice fever along with severe headache, stiff neck, rash or confusion — in themselves or others should contact a health care provider. If the signs of illness are unusually sudden or severe, seek emergency care.
To learn more, visit the Ohio Department of Health webpage: https://odh.ohio.gov/know-our-programs/infectious-disease-control-manual/section3/section-3-meningococcal-disease
For more information, visit the CDC website: https://www.cdc.gov/meningococcal/index.html