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Meningococcal disease

12-minute read

Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency. It can cause fever, a purple rash, meningitis and sepsis. If you are worried that you or someone you care for may have meningococcal disease, go to your nearest emergency department or call 000 for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Meningococcal disease is a contagious disease caused by meningococcal bacteria.
  • Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency.
  • If you are worried that you or someone you care for may have meningococcal disease, go to the nearest hospital emergency department.
  • Vaccines are available to help prevent meningococcal disease.

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is a contagious disease. It is caused by a type of bacteria called neisseria meningitidis (also known as meningococcal bacteria).

Meningococcal infections can cause invasive meningococcal disease, which can include:

  • septicaemia (when bacteria enter your bloodstream and cause blood poisoning)
  • sepsis (a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body damages its own tissues and organs in response to infection)
  • meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding your brain and spinal cord)

Invasive meningococcal disease can develop quickly and is life-threatening.

Less commonly, meningococcal bacteria can also cause local infections, such as:

What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?

Symptoms of invasive meningococcal disease can include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • neck stiffness
  • light sensitivity
  • nausea and vomiting, or loss of appetite
  • drowsiness and confusion
  • leg pain or other muscle or joint aches and pains

Meningococcal disease can cause a rash of red or purple pinprick spots, or larger bruise-like areas. The rash does not turn skin-coloured when you press on it with a finger or the side of a clear drinking glass. The rash can be a late sign of meningococcal disease.

In babies and young children, other signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease can include:

  • difficulty feeding or reduced feeds
  • irritability
  • tiredness and floppiness
  • seizures
  • having a high moaning cry
  • having a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on the top of their head)
  • pale or mottled skin
Photograph of a foot with meningococcal rash.
Meningococcal disease can cause a rash of red or purple pinprick spots, or larger bruise-like areas.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal bacteria can live in the nose and throat of healthy people. The bacteria can be spread through:

  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • sharing eating and drinking utensils
  • kissing

The most common types of meningococcal bacteria that cause disease are types A, B, C, W and Y.

Who is at risk of meningococcal disease?

Anyone can develop meningococcal disease, but some people are at a higher risk than others.

Those at increased risk are people who:

  • have no working spleen or who have certain other rare medical conditions
  • have conditions or take treatments that affect their immune systems
  • work in a laboratory and handle meningococcus
  • are new military recruits
  • are university students living in residential colleges (particularly in their first year)
  • smoke or are exposed to tobacco smoke
  • intimately kiss more than one partner
  • have recently had a viral upper respiratory tract infection

When should I see my doctor?

Invasive meningococcal disease can develop quickly and is life-threatening.

Anyone with a suspected meningococcal infection needs to see a doctor immediately. Go to the nearest emergency department.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is meningococcal disease diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine you.

Tests that can diagnose meningococcal disease include:

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is meningococcal disease treated?

Meningococcal disease is treated in hospital, and often requires intensive care support.

You will need treatment with intravenous antibiotics (antibiotics through a drip).

Other treatments will depend on your symptoms and condition.

Can meningococcal disease be prevented?

If you've been in close contact with someone who has meningococcal disease, you may be given antibiotics to reduce your risk of infection.

You can lower your risk of catching infections if you follow these good hygiene practices:

  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Don't share drink bottles, cups or cutlery.
  • Sneeze into your elbow.
  • Throw tissues into the bin straight after use and wash your hands.

Vaccination

Vaccination is your best protection against meningococcal disease. There are different vaccines for different types of disease (A, B, C, W and Y).

Vaccination with meningococcal B and meningococcal ACWY vaccines can be done from 6 weeks of age.

Anyone who wants to protect themselves against meningococcal disease should talk to their doctor about getting vaccinated. Meningococcal immunisation is recommended for:

  • babies, children, teenagers and young adults
  • Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people
  • young adults who live in close quarters or who are current smokers
  • travellers
  • people who have certain medical conditions that increase their risk of meningococcal disease
  • laboratory workers who work with the bacterium that causes meningococcal disease

The table below explains how the meningococcal ACWY vaccine is given and who can get it as part of the National Immunisation Program Schedule.

Meningococcal ACWY vaccine
How is it administered? Injection
Is it available for free under the National Immunisation Program?

The vaccination is free for:

  • babies at 12 months of age
  • adolescents aged 14 to 16 years (usually given as part of school-based vaccination programs)
  • people with certain medical conditions or taking certain medicines

Find out more on the Department of Health website and the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Ask your doctor if you are eligible for additional free vaccines based on your situation.

Who can get catch-up vaccinations?

Teenagers up to 20 years of age who missed out on their adolescent dose of meningococcal ACWY vaccine at 14 to 16 years of age can get free catch-up vaccination.

Refugees and other humanitarian entrants of any age can also get the free catch-up vaccination.

Are there any side effects from meningococcal vaccination?

Possible side effects include:

  • pain, redness, swelling or a lump where the needle went in
  • fever
  • feeling unsettled or tired
  • decreased appetite
  • headache

Meningococcal vaccines should not be given to people who have had a previous severe allergic reaction. They are generally not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Meningococcal vaccines are not 100% effective. Even if you (or your child) have had a meningococcal vaccination, go to hospital straight away if you have symptoms of meningococcal disease.

What are the complications of meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is serious and can be life-threatening.

Long-term effects of the disease can include:

  • limb differences, or losing a limb
  • skin scarring
  • hearing loss
  • blindness
  • learning difficulties
  • brain damage

Resources and support

Meningitis Centre Australia has patient stories and an online support group for people affected by meningitis.

For more information on immunisation in Australia, visit the National Immunisation Program Schedule.

Sepsis Australia provides support and information on sepsis and life after sepsis.

If you are worried about meningococcal disease you can call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2023


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