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Updated 15 May 2023 | Approved By

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Meningococcal Disease – Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

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Meningococcal disease is a severe and potentially life-threatening condition caused by bacteria. This disease is characterised by inflammation of the tissue layers surrounding the brain and spinal cord, known as the meninges. Those diagnosed with this condition can quickly become very sick. Around 10% of Australians with Meningococcal disease die, while 10-20% of survivors will experience long-term health problems [1]. Additionally, around one-third of deaths will occur in children aged 0-5. The meningococcal disease requires immediate medical attention. If left untreated, it can lead to long-term health problems and even become life-threatening. It is strongly advised to seek close medical attention from your GP for the appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

What is Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal disease is a severe illness that can result in death or long-term disability if not promptly diagnosed and treated. It usually starts as a bacterial infection that can spread from an infected person. Once in the body, it can enter the bloodstream and cause damage to structures in the body, like blood vessels and organs. The bacteria can lead to the inflammation of the protective structures around the brain and spinal cord, which is known as meningitis. Additionally, it can lead to blood infections called septicaemia, which can cause widespread inflammation and damage to organs. Early recognition and antibiotic treatment are crucial to prevent severe complications and death. Vaccines are available to protect against certain strains of bacteria.

Meningococcal disease symptoms and signs

The symptoms of meningococcal disease can develop rapidly and quickly become life-threatening. Symptoms may include:
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Confusion
  • A rash that does not fade under pressure.
In some cases, the disease may also cause seizures, coma, or even death. If you or someone you know develops any of these symptoms, it is essential to seek medical attention immediately.

Meningococcal Disease Cause

The condition is caused by a bacteria called Neisseria Meningitidis, which is normally found in the body. It is responsible for the majority of meningococcal disease cases worldwide.

Is Meningococcal Disease Contagious?

The disease is usually difficult to spread from person to person as it usually dies after leaving the body [2]. Typically, the bacteria is spread by fluids found at the back of the nose and throat through intimate contacts, such as kissing. It is unlikely to be contagious through actions, such as sharing food and drinks.

Meningococcal Disease Risk Factors

Several factors can increase the risk of catching the disease [3], including:
  • Living in crowded environments such as college dormitories or military barracks
  • Having close contact with someone who has the disease
  • Having a weakened immune system.
  • Travelling to areas with high rates of meningococcal disease
  • Attending large social gatherings such as music festivals
  • Genetic factors and medical conditions, such as complement deficiencies and sickle cell disease, can increase the risk of
  • meningococcal disease.
It is essential to take preventive measures such as vaccination and practising good hygiene to reduce the risk of contracting this disease.

Meningococcal Disease Diagnosis and Testing

If you suspect that you or someone else may have meningococcal disease, you must see your GP immediately. They can refer you for the recommended testing to ensure an accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment. Diagnosis of meningococcal disease is usually based on a physical assessment by your doctor followed by laboratory testing.

Physical Examination from a Doctor

GPs will look for clinical signs of meningococcal disease, including fever, headache, stiff neck, vomiting, and rash. However, these symptoms can also be present in other conditions, so laboratory tests are necessary to confirm the diagnosis [4].

Blood Tests

A blood culture is one of the most common laboratory tests used to diagnose meningococcal disease. This involves taking a blood sample and growing it in a laboratory to see if any bacteria are present [4]. Your GP will refer you to a pathology clinic for the necessary testing.

Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) Tests

Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is a clear and colourless liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. CSF tests can be used to diagnose meningococcal disease by testing for the presence of the bacteria called Neisseria Meningitidis. The laboratory tests may include a lumbar puncture to collect a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) sample from the spinal cord, which can be analysed for signs of infection [4].

Meningococcal disease Treatment

Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency that requires prompt treatment with antibiotics. Early detection and treatment are critical for recovery and a good outcome. If you suspect you or someone else may have meningococcal disease, contact one of our GPs immediately. Below are treatments that are essential for treating this disease.


Antibiotics can help to kill the bacteria causing the infection and prevent the spread of the disease. People in close contact with someone with meningococcal disease may also be given preventive treatment with antibiotics to reduce their risk of developing the disease. This is particularly important for people in close contact with a confirmed case, such as household members or intimate partners [4].


People with suspected or confirmed meningococcal disease are usually admitted to the hospital for treatment [2][4]. In addition to antibiotics, supportive care, such as oxygen therapy, fluids, and pain relief, may also be necessary. Patients with severe cases may require intensive care and may need to be placed on a ventilator to help them breathe


Meningococcal disease is a serious bacterial infection that can affect the brain and spinal cord [4]. Recovery from meningococcal disease depends on various factors, such as the severity of the condition, the age and overall health of the affected person, and how quickly they receive treatment. Recovery can be slow and may require hospitalisation for several days or weeks. During this time, patients may receive supportive care such as intravenous fluids, pain medication, and other treatments to manage symptoms and help the body fight the infection. Therefore, it is vital to seek medical attention immediately if you or someone you know has symptoms of meningococcal disease. Early diagnosis and treatment can significantly reduce the risk of complications.


Recovery is good if the meningococcal disease is diagnosed and treated early. However, suppose the infection is not caught and treated promptly. In that case, it can cause serious complications, such as sepsis, meningitis, and even death [4]. Some people who survive meningococcal disease may experience long-term complications, such as hearing loss, brain damage, or limb amputation.


Prevention of meningococcal disease is mainly achieved through vaccination. The vaccination recommendations for meningococcal disease in Australia vary depending on the individual's age group and risk factors. Vaccinations can be provided early as infants and children through the National Immunisation Program. Please ask our GPs about how you can receive vaccinations against meningococcal disease.

Receiving quality care from highly experienced doctors is essential for a prompt diagnosis and receiving the correct medical treatment. With 24-7 MedCare, you can experience telemedicine from the convenience of your own home. Our friendly online doctors will be available 24/7 for a consultation, anytime and anywhere in Australia.

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  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2019). Meningococcal disease in Australia 2017. Retrieved from
  2. New South Wales Government, Health. (2022). Meningococcal disease. Retrieved from
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). Meningococcal disease: Risk factors. Retrieved from
  4. Daley, A. J. (2003). Meningococcal disease. Australian family physician, 32(8).