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An Overview of Meningococcal Meningitis

Meningococcal meningitis is a rare but serious infection. It causes the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord to become inflamed. Each year, approximately 1,000 people in the U.S. get meningococcal disease, which includes meningitis and septicemia (blood infection). 

Meningococcal meningitis can be fatal or cause great harm without prompt treatment; as many as one out of five people who contract the infection have serious complications. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 15% of those who survive are left with disabilities that include deafness, brain damage, and neurological problems. 

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Here's what you need to know about the symptoms of meningococcal meningitis and ways to prevent and treat it.

What Causes Meningococcal Meningitis?

Bacteria and viruses are the two main causes of meningitis. The bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, also called meningococcus, causes meningococcal meningitis. In children and teens, meningococcus is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis. In adults, it is the second most common cause.

Meningococcal bacteria may cause infection in a part of the body -- the skin, gastrointestinal tract, or respiratory tract, for instance. For unknown reasons, the bacteria may then spread through the bloodstream to the nervous system. When it gets there, it causes meningococcal meningitis. Bacteria can also enter the nervous system directly after severe head trauma, surgery, or infection.

Your risk for meningococcal meningitis increases if you are exposed to the bacterium that causes it. Your risk also increases if you've had a recent upper respiratory infection. Babies, children, and teens are at greatest risk.

What Are the Symptoms of Meningococcal Meningitis?

Symptoms of meningococcal meningitis may vary from case to case. The more common signs and symptoms include:

  • General poor feeling
  • Sudden high fever
  • Severe, persistent headache
  • Neck stiffness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Discomfort in bright lights
  • Drowsiness or difficulty awakening
  • Joint pain
  • Confusion or other mental changes

A reddish or purple skin rash is a very important sign to watch for. If it does not turn white when you press a glass against it, the rash may be a sign of blood poisoning. This is a medical emergency.

Other symptoms of meningitis or blood poisoning may include:

  • Tense or bulging soft spot (in babies)
  • High-pitched or moaning cry (in babies)
  • Stiff, jerky movements or floppiness (in babies or toddlers)
  • Irritability
  • Fast breathing
  • Lethargy or excessive sleepiness
  • Blotchy skin, turning pale or blue
  • Shivering, or cold hands and feet
  • Seizure
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