Meningococcal (muh-nin-jo-cok-ul) disease is a serious bacterial illness that can lead to severe swelling of the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) or infection of the bloodstream (meningococcal septicemia or meningococcemia). Pneumonia (lung infection) also occurs, but is less common.
Even with treatment, approximately 1 out of every 10 people who get meningococcal disease will die, and of those who survive, up to 20 percent will suffer serious and permanent complications including brain damage, kidney damage, hearing loss, and amputation of arms, legs, fingers, or toes.
Anyone can get meningococcal disease but certain people are at increased risk, including:
- Infants younger than 1 year old
- Adolescents and young adults age 16 through 23 years old
- College students who live in residence halls
- People with certain medical conditions that affect the immune system such as HIV
- Microbiologists who routinely work with isolates of Neisseria meningitidis, the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease
- People at risk because of an outbreak in their community
- Individuals traveling to a country where meningococcal disease is epidemic or highly endemic
- Military recruits
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meningococcal bacteria spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions like saliva or spit (e.g., by coughing, living in close quarters, kissing).
Early meningococcal disease symptoms are often similar to influenza (flu) which can cause a delay in diagnosis and treatment. Symptoms usually progress very quickly and may include a combination of the following:
- Stiff neck
- Nausea, vomiting
- Purplish rash
Death can happen in as little as 24-48 hours. People who experience these symptoms, especially if they are unusually sudden, progressive, or severe, should be examined as soon as possible by a healthcare professional.
Keeping up to date with recommended vaccines is the best way to protect against meningococcal disease. Two meningococcal vaccines (MenACWY and MenB) provide protection against the five serogroups that cause most meningococcal disease in the US (serogroups A, B, C, W, and Y). CDC recommends MenACWY for:
- All preteens at age 11-12 years
- All teens at age 16 years (booster dose)
Teens and young adults (age 16-23 years) may also get a MenB vaccine:
- The preferred age is 16-18 years
- Multiple doses are needed for best protection
- All doses must be the same brand
Talk to your healthcare professional if your teen missed getting MenACWY or if you are interested in MenB vaccination.
CDC recommends one or both types of meningococcal vaccines for people with
- Certain medical conditions (talk to your healthcare professional for the appropriate schedule)
- Travel plans to areas where the disease is common
- Jobs working with the bacteria
- Increased risk due to a meningococcal disease outbreak
Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics, but quick medical attention is extremely important to help reduce the risk of dying. Depending on how serious the infection is, people with meningococcal disease may need other treatments, including:
- Breathing support
- Low blood pressure medications
- Surgery to remove dead tissue, caused by septicemia
- Wound care for skin damaged, caused by septicemia
Even with treatment, one in 10 people infected with meningococcal disease will die. Up to one in five survivors will have long-term disabilities, such as loss of limb(s), deafness, nervous system problems, or brain damage.
Updated July 2021
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Sample social media posts focused on meningococcal disease prevention
30-second public service video on the two types of meningococcal vaccines to help protect adolescents and young adults
Many adults need to be vaccinated if they are at increased risk of meningococcal disease, including college students, military personnel, and some international travelers
Definitions of medical terms about meningococcal disease
Serogroup B is the most common cause of meningococcal disease in US adolescents and young adults
What you should know about meningococcal disease
Most meningococcal cases in the US are not linked to outbreaks, but when outbreaks do occur, they are usually in dense populations such as college campuses