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Meningococcemia: Causes, Symptoms, and More

What Is Meningococcemia?

Meningococcemia is an infection caused by the Neisseria meningitidis bacteria. This is the same type of bacteria that can cause meningitis. When the bacteria infect the membranes that cover your brain and spinal cord, it’s called meningitis. When the infection remains in your blood but doesn’t infect your brain or spinal cord, it’s called meningococcemia.

Neisseria meningitidis bacteria are common in your upper respiratory tract and don’t necessarily cause illness. Although anyone can get meningococcemia, it’s most common in babies, children, and young adults.

An infection by Neisseria meningitidis, whether it becomes meningitis or meningococcemia, is considered a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention.

What Causes Meningococcemia?

Neisseria meningitidis, the bacteria that cause meningococcemia, can live harmlessly in your upper respiratory tract. Simply being exposed to this germ is not enough to cause this disease. Up to 10 percent of people may carry these bacteria, but not all of these people become sick.

An infected person can spread these bacteria through coughing and sneezing.

What Are the Symptoms of Meningococcemia?

You may only have a few symptoms initially. Common early symptoms are:

  • fever
  • headache
  • rash consisting of small spots
  • nausea
  • irritability
  • anxiety

As the disease progresses, you may develop more serious symptoms, including:

  • blood clots
  • patches of bleeding under your skin
  • lethargy
  • shock

How Is Meningococcemia Diagnosed?

Meningococcemia is usually diagnosed through blood tests. Your doctor will take a sample of your blood and then do a blood culture to determine if bacteria are present. Blood is usually drawn from a vein in the arm or hand.

Your doctor may perform the same test using fluid from your spine instead of your blood. In this case, the test is called a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) culture. Your doctor will get CSF from a spinal tap, or lumbar puncture.

Other tests your doctor might perform include:

  • skin biopsy
  • urine test
  • blood clotting tests
  • complete blood count

How Is Meningococcemia Treated?

Meningococcemia must be treated immediately. You’ll be admitted to the hospital and possibly kept in an isolated room to stop the bacteria from spreading.

You’ll be given antibiotics through a vein to begin fighting the infection. You may also receive intravenous fluids.

Other treatments depend on the symptoms you’ve developed. If you’re having difficulty breathing, you’ll receive oxygen. If your blood pressure becomes too low, you’ll most likely receive medication.

Meningococcemia can lead to bleeding disorders. If this occurs, your doctor may give you platelet replacement therapy.

In some cases, your doctor may also wish to give your close contacts prophylactic antibiotics, even if they show no symptoms. This can help prevent them from developing the disease.

Who Is Likely to Develop Meningococcemia?

Around half of the total number of cases of meningococcal disease occur in children under 4 years old. This figure includes both meningococcal meningitis and meningococcemia.

If you’ve recently moved into a group living situation, such as a dormitory, you’re more likely to develop the condition. If you’re planning to enter into such a living situation, your doctor may tell you to get vaccinated against this condition.

You’re also at an increased risk if you live with or have been in very close contact with someone who has the disease. Speak to your doctor if this is the case. They may choose to give you preventive antibiotics.

Tips to Prevent Meningococcemia

Practicing healthy hygiene can decrease the risk of infection. This includes washing hands thoroughly and covering your mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing.

You can also help reduce your risk of infection by avoiding people who are coughing, sneezing, or showing other signs of illness. Also, don’t share personal items with sick people. This means not sharing anything that comes into contact with the mouth unless it has been washed after it was last used.

If you’ve been exposed to an infected person, your doctor may recommend preventive antibiotics. This will reduce your chances of getting the disease.

Your doctor may recommend that you get a vaccination. There are three types of vaccinations available in the United States. Vaccination is recommended for those at increased risk for infection, such as teenagers, college students, or people about to move into a group living situation for the first time. Talk to your doctor about possible vaccination options.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Gretchen Holm
Medically reviewed on: Dec 03, 2015: Steven Kim, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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