What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is a rare but serious and life-threatening infection. Meningococcal disease usually causes:

  • swelling of the lining of the brain (meningitis)
  • infection of the blood (septicaemia).

It can also cause:

  • pneumonia
  • sudden arthritis.

Symptoms appear suddenly and people can die very quickly without medical help.

Long-term effects of meningococcal disease can include:

  • deformed arms and legs
  • loss of arms and legs
  • scars on the skin
  • deafness in one or both ears
  • headaches
  • ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • blurred or double vision
  • aches and stiffness in the joints
  • learning difficulties.

Meningococcal disease is caused by a number of different strains of the bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis. There are a number of subtypes given different letters of the alphabet – the main types seen in Australia are Meningococcus B, W and Y.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?

Some symptoms of meningococcal can suggest a severe case of the disease. If these symptoms appear, you should seek urgent medical treatment:

  • rash of red or purple pinprick spots, or larger bruise-like areas
  • fever
  • headache
  • neck stiffness
  • discomfort when looking at bright light
  • nausea or vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • feeling very, very sick.

Other possible symptoms can include:

  • loss of appetite or refusing to feed
  • irritability or fretfulness
  • confusion
  • drowsiness
  • in young children, extreme tiredness or floppiness
  • aching or sore muscles
  • painful or swollen joints
  • difficulty walking, and maybe collapsing
  • grunting or moaning
  • difficulty talking
  • in young children, having fits or twitching.

Babies and young children can have different symptoms to older children and adults.

Who is at risk from meningococcal disease?

Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but it is rare. The people most at risk of getting the disease are:

  • young children under the age of five
  • teenagers and young adults between 15 and 24 years old
  • people living with patients who have meningococcal disease
  • people who are exposed to cigarette smoke
  • travellers to countries with high rates of meningococcal disease
  • people who have a weakened immune system due to both chronic disease and some medications.

How do you get meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease can spread when people are in very close contact with each other for a long time. This can range from kissing intimately or living in the same household.

Meningococcal bacteria do not spread easily by sharing food or drinks.

The bacteria can only live outside of the body for a few seconds, so you can’t catch meningococcal disease from casual contact or from the environment.

Between 10 and 20 per cent of people carry the bacteria in their nose or throat without showing any signs of illness. In most people the bacteria go away without treatment after a few weeks or months. It is often unclear why some people develop disease and others don’t.

How do you prevent meningococcal disease?

Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect against meningococcal disease.

Meningococcal vaccines help protect you from developing the disease. There are different types of meningococcal bacteria, and different vaccines are needed for the different types.

For more information on meningococcal immunisation, see Meningococcal immunisation service.

Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to you if you have close contact to someone with the disease. This is to stop the disease spreading.

How do you know if you have meningococcal disease?

Early diagnosis of meningococcal disease is very important so treatment can start quickly. It is sometimes difficult to diagnose early because the early symptoms of meningococcal disease can be similar to other illnesses.

Seek medical help immediately if you think you or one of your family members has meningococcal disease. If necessary, call an ambulance or go to the emergency department of your local hospital.

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms. If your doctor thinks you have meningococcal disease, they can take a blood, spinal or joint fluid sample to confirm the diagnosis.

How do you get treated for meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is treated with an injection of antibiotics. If you have meningococcal disease, you will be most likely be hospitalised, and you may spend time in an intensive care unit.

More information


If you need advice or more information about immunisation, go to our Immunisation contacts page.

Last updated: 
11 December 2017