Meningococcal disease is a severe bacterial infection of the bloodstream or meninges (a thin lining covering the brain and spinal cord). It is a relatively rare disease and usually occurs as a single isolated event. Clusters of cases or outbreaks are rare in the United States.
Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but it is more common in infants, children, and young adults.
It is not typical for a person to get meningococcal meningitis a second time.
How is the germ meningococcus spread?
The meningococcus disease is spread by direct contact with mucus or droplets from the nose or throat of an infected person.
Meningitis and septicemia caused by Neisseria meningitidis (N. meningitis) can be spread by direct contact with saliva as when kissing, sharing eating utensils, drinks, or cigarettes.
Pneumonia caused by N. meningitis can also be transmitted by droplets. Many people carry this particular germ in their nose and throat without any signs of illness, while others may develop serious symptoms.
From the time a person is first infected until the germ is no longer present in discharges from the nose and throat, they may transmit the disease. The duration varies according to the treatment used.
Anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms should cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing.
During outbreaks in schools, pregnant women and people with chronic red blood cell disorders should ask their doctor for advice.
Although most people exposed to the meningococcus germ do not become seriously ill, some may develop:
- stiff neck
Symptoms may appear 2 to 10 days after exposure, but usually within 3 to 4 days.
Up to 25% of patients who recover may have chronic damage to the nervous system. The disease is occasionally fatal.
Antibiotics such as penicillin, and ampicillin, are used to treat meningococcal disease. Once the initial infection is treated the case should also receive rifampin to clear the carrier state.
If you have been in close contact with a person who has meningococcal meningitis you should seek preventative treatment. Your physician will most likely prescribe a special antibiotic such as rifampin, ciprofloxacin, or ceftriaxone.
Casual contact that occurs in a regular classroom, office, or factory setting is not usually significant enough to cause concern.
There is a vaccine that will protect against some of the strains of meningococcus.
For some college students, such as freshman living in dormitories, there is a modestly increased risk of meningococcal disease; students and parents should be educated about meningococcal disease and the availability of a safe and effective vaccine.
The Meningococcal Meningitis vaccine is recommended in outbreak situations, and for those traveling to areas of the world where high rates of the disease are known to occur. For more information, contact your county health department.
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