Meningococcal Disease Fact Sheet

Last Reviewed: January 2023

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. It can lead to a serious blood infection called meningococcal septicemia. When the linings of the brain and spinal cord become infected, it is called meningococcal meningitis. The disease strikes quickly and can have serious complications, including death.

Anyone can get meningococcal disease. Some people are at higher risk. This disease occurs more often in people who are:

  • Teenagers or young adults
  • Infants younger than one (1) year of age
  • Living in crowded settings, such as college dormitories or military barracks
  • Traveling to areas outside of the United States, such as the "meningitis belt" in Africa
  • Living with a damaged spleen or no spleen or have sickle cell disease
  • Living with HIV
  • Being treated with the medication Soliris® or Ultomiris™, or those who have complement component deficiency (an inherited immune disorder)
  • Exposed during an outbreak
  • Working with meningococcal bacteria in a laboratory
  • Recently infected with an upper respiratory virus
  • Smokers

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms appear suddenly – usually three (3) to four (4) days after a person is infected. It can take up to ten (10) days to develop symptoms. Symptoms of meningococcal meningitis may include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Photophobia (eyes being more sensitive to light)
  • Altered mental status (confusion)

Newborns and babies may not have the classic symptoms listed above, or it may be difficult to notice those symptoms in babies. Instead, babies may be slow or inactive, irritable, vomiting, feeding poorly, or have a bulging anterior fontanelle (the soft spot of the skull). In young children, doctors may also look at the child's reflexes for signs of meningitis.

Symptoms of meningococcal septicemia may include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Fatigue (feeling tired)
  • Vomiting
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Severe aches or pains in the muscles, joints, chest, or abdomen (belly)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • In the later stages, a dark purple rash

How is meningococcal disease spread?

It spreads from person-to-person by coughing or coming into close or lengthy contact with someone who is sick or who carries the bacteria. Contact includes kissing, sharing drinks, or living together. Up to one (1) in 10 people carry meningococcal bacteria in their nose or throat without getting sick.

Is there treatment?

Early diagnosis of meningococcal disease is very important. If it is caught early, meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics. However, sometimes the infection has caused too much damage for antibiotics to prevent death or serious long-term problems. Most people need to be cared for in a hospital due to the serious, life-threatening nature of this infection.

What are the complications?

10-15% of those who get meningococcal disease die. Among survivors, as many as one (1) in five (5) will have permanent disabilities. Complications include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Brain damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Nervous system problems
  • Limb amputations

What should I do if I or someone I love is exposed?

If you are in close contact with a person with meningococcal disease, talk with your healthcare provider about the risk to you and your family. They can prescribe an antibiotic to prevent the disease.

What is the best way to prevent meningococcal disease?

The single best way to prevent this disease is to be vaccinated. Vaccines are available for people six (6) weeks of age and older. Various vaccines offer protection against the five (5) major strains of bacteria that cause meningococcal disease:

  • All preteens and teenagers should receive two doses of vaccine against strains A, C, W and Y, also known as MenACWY or MCV4 vaccine. The first dose is given at 11 to 12 years of age, and the second dose (booster) at 16 years. It is very important that teens receive the booster dose at age 16 years in order to protect them through the years when they are at greatest risk of meningococcal disease.
  • Teens and young adults can also be vaccinated against the "B" strain, also known as MenB vaccine. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether they recommend vaccine against the "B" strain.

Who should not be vaccinated?

Some people should avoid or delay the meningococcal vaccine:

  • Tell your doctor if you have any severe allergies. Anyone who has ever had a severe allergic reaction to a previous dose of meningococcal vaccine should not get another dose of the vaccine.
  • Anyone who has a severe allergy to any component in the vaccine should not get the vaccine.
  • Anyone who is moderately or severely ill at the time the shot is scheduled should wait until they are better. People with a mild illness can usually get vaccinated.

What are the meningococcal vaccine requirements for school attendance?

  • For students entering grades seven (7) through 11: one dose of MenACWY vaccine
  • For students entering grade 12: two (2) doses of MenACWY vaccine
    • The second dose needs to be given on or after the 16th birthday.
    • Teens who received their first dose on or after their 16th birthday do not need another dose.

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