Student Health Services
Holloway Hall

Acute Care: Injuries and Illnesses

MENINGOCOCCAL MENINGITIS

What is Meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord. This condition can be caused by several different organisms such as bacteria and viruses.

Viral Meningitis is more common and usually occurs in the late Summer and early Fall. Sometimes, abdominal discomfort, chest pain, or a rash will be present. The central nervous system is involved with possible alteration of consciousness or paralysis; however, these more serious conditions are infrequent. Most cases of viral meningitis run a short, uneventful course. Since this is a virus (like the common cold), antibiotics are not effective. Likewise, persons who have had contact with viral meningitis patients do not require any treatment.

Bacterial Meningitis is a rare disease, but can be very serious and requires treatment with antibiotics. It can occur sporadically throughout the year.

One form of bacterial meningitis is Meningococcal meningitis. This form can cause very grave illness. It requires early diagnosis and treatment. Untreated Meningococcal infection can be fatal.

Back to Top

How are individuals infected with Meningococcal Meningitis?

Approximately 5% to 10% of the general population carry the meningococcal bacteria in the nose and throat in a harmless state. This carrier state may last for days or months and seems to give those individuals who harbor meningococcus in their upper respiratory tract some protection from actually developing the disease state.

During epidemics of meningococcal meningitis, the carrier rate may approach 95%, yet less than 1% may develop the disease. This low occurrence of illness after exposure suggests that an individual's health status (the strength or weakness of the immune system), rather than bacterial factors, plays an important determining role.

Meningococcal bacteria cannot usually live for more than a few minutes outside the body. They are usually not transmitted in water supplies, swimming pools, or by routine contact in classrooms, dining rooms, bars, restrooms, etc., where an infected individual has been. Roommates, friends, spouses, and children who are not directly exposed to an ill meningitis victim are not at risk.

Persons who have had intimate or direct exposure to a meningococcal meningitis patient within seven days are at risk for contracting meningococcal meningitis and should receive prophylactic medication. Intimate or direct exposure includes kissing, sharing eating utensils, or by droplet contamination from nose, throat, or any secretions or excretions from the body of the infected individual.

Back to Top

How many Meningococcal Meningitis cases occur each year?

The annual occurrence rate of meningococcal disease in the United States is stable at 1 to 3 per 100,000. Average mortality rates vary between 2% and 10% with early recognition and treatment being the crucial variables. 

Back to Top

What makes Meningococcal Meningitis so dangerous?

Meningococcal meningitis can be particularly dangerous for two fundamental reasons: 

  1. It is relatively rare. Therefore, we may not consider the possibility of contracting meningitis and may ignore early symptoms and signs.
  2. It can be deceptive. A person may experience minor cold symptoms for a few days and then progress to severe meningococcal disease in a relatively short period of time.

In the rare instances when the meningococcus organism invades the bloodstream, it can be carried to other organs including the eyes, heart, lungs, and the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). 

Back to Top

What are the usual symptoms and signs of Meningococcal Meningitis?

Meningococcal meningitis can cause an individual to become very ill. Understanding the characteristic symptoms and signs is critical and could be lifesaving. 

Consult with a physician or go to an emergency room immediately if you have a fever greater than 101 degree AND a severe sudden headache accompanied by mental changes, neck/back stiffness, or rashes*.

Back to Top

What is the treatment for Meningococcal Meningitis exposure?

People who have been exposed to the saliva or oral secretions of a person with meningococcal meningitis may need to take antibiotics to prevent spread of the infection. The purpose of the antibiotics is to eliminate the bacteria from the throat (carrier state) of people who may have been infected by someone with meningitis. People who have not had direct exposure to oral secretions do not need to be treated.

Back to Top

What is the treatment for Meningococcal Meningitis illness?

The majority of patients who are diagnosed early in the course of meningitis illness can be effectively treated with antibiotics and experience complete recovery. Occasionally, a meningococcal infection is overwhelming and defies prompt medical treatment.

Back to Top

What are some ways in which individuals can reduce their risk of contracting Meningitis?

A lifestyle that helps keep the immune system as strong as possible with a balanced diet, adequate sleep and rest, appropriate exercise and the avoidance of excessive stress may be important. Avoiding respiratory illness and tobacco smoke may help to protect from invasive disease. Research suggests that the host's health status and ability to resist disease, rather than bacterial factors, play an important role in determining who becomes ill with meningococcal meningitis. A vaccine for meningococcal meningitis is also available but provides only limited protection. See our information statement.

Back to Top