Meningococcal disease is caused by a bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis (also known as meningococcal bacteria). It can develop quickly, and it can be fatal. Anyone with a suspected meningococcal infection needs to see a doctor immediately.
What causes meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal bacteria live in the nose or throat, and can be spread through coughing, sneezing, sharing eating and drinking utensils, and kissing. It’s not easy to pass the bacteria on, because they cannot survive outside the human body for long periods of time. The only way they are passed from person to person is if you live in the same house or have intimate contact, like deep kissing.
Very occasionally, meningococcal bacteria can invade the bloodstream, causing meningococcal disease that may present itself as sepsis (a blood infection, also known as 'septicaemia' or 'blood poisoning'), meningitis (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord), or an infection of another body part, such as the joints and eyes. Most cases occur in children under five years, but it can happen in people of any age.
Meningococcal disease symptoms
The common symptoms of meningococcal disease in babies and young children include: fever, food refusal, fretfulness, drowsiness, purple-red skin rash or bruising purple-red skin rash or bruising that does not turn skin-coloured when you press on it with a finger or the side of a clear drinking glass, high moaning cry, light sensitivity and pale or blotchy skin.
Symptoms in older children and adults include: headache, fever, vomiting, neck stiffness and joint pains, drowsiness and confusion, purple-red skin rash or bruising purple-red skin rash or bruising that does not turn skin-coloured when you press on it with a finger or the side of a clear drinking glass, and light sensitivity.
The signs and symptoms do not appear in a definite order and some may not appear at all.
This symptoms list does not include every possible sign and symptom.
Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency. It can kill within hours, so early diagnosis and treatment is vital. Do not wait for the purple rash to appear as that is a late stage of the disease.
If you are worried that you or someone you care for may have meningococcal disease, see your doctor immediately. If your doctor is not available, go to your nearest emergency department.
Last reviewed: September 2018