Meningococcal disease is a rare, serious illness caused by a bacteria called
The bacteria spread from person to person through their saliva (spit)—typically through close contact such as coughing or kissing. The infection can become serious or even deadly in a matter of hours. That's why it is important to know how to protect yourself.
Continue reading to learn more about symptoms, medical treatment and the important vaccines to prevent meningococcal disease.
Why are teens at increased risk of getting meningococcal disease?
Anyone can get meningococcal disease. Certain
people are at more risk, though. This includes teens and young adults between the ages of 16 and 23. First-year
college students and military recruits, for example, may be more likely to get meningococcal disease because germs can pass quickly in crowded living spaces like dorms or military barracks.
In addition to teens and young adults, other people at increased risk of meningococcal disease include:
Babies younger than 1 year old, whose immune systems are still developing.
People with medical conditions that weaken the immune system or who take certain medications.
Travelers to areas and events with high rates of meningococcal disease, such as in northern areas of sub-Saharan Africa, and participants in the Hajj.
People who are at high risk and are exposed to a meningococcal disease outbreak.
Which meningococcal vaccines are recommended for young people?
There are two
meningococcal vaccines. They help prevent all but one of the most common types of
Neisseria meningitidis bacteria (types A, B, C, W and Y, but not X) known to cause meningococcal disease around the world. In the United States, types B, C and Y cause the most infections.
Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY) is recommended for all kids between age 11 and 12 years and a booster dose is given at age 16 years. If you received the first dose at or after age 16 years, you do not need a booster. MenACWY vaccine also is recommended for anyone age 2 months or older with certain medical conditions.
Meningococcal B vaccine (MenB) is recommended for people 10 years and older who are at increased risk for meningococcal B infections. And, anyone age 16 through 23 years may choose to get the vaccine for short-term protection against meningococcal B. The preferred age is 16 through 18 years.
(See "Parent to Parent: Take it from us: Meningitis B vaccination matters" below.)
Your doctor will recommend the type of vaccine for you based on your age and health risk. For example, many colleges require proof of MenACWY vaccination within 5 years before beginning school. If necessary, you can get both types of the meningococcal vaccine at the same visit. Currently no meningococcal vaccine offers protection in a single shot against all 5 types.
Most people who get a meningococcal vaccine do not have serious side effects. You may have redness and swelling at the injection site, muscle pain or a slight fever. These symptoms are usually mild and resolve in a few days.
Is meningococcal disease dangerous?
About 1 in 10 people have these bacteria in their nose and throat but never get sick. In some people, however, meningococcal disease can lead to
meningitis (infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord) and meningococcal sepsis (infection of the blood). These infections can be life-threatening unless diagnosed and treated early.
In 2021, there were about 210 reported cases of meningococcal disease in the United States, and this rate continues to decline. Approximately 15 in 100 people with meningococcal disease will die. One in 5 survivors will have long-term disabilities such as loss of limb(s), deafness, nervous system problems, or brain damage.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease
Meningococcal disease often is mistaken for other illnesses, like the
common cold. Meningococcal sepsis and meningitis can get worse very quickly, even within a few hours from the start of symptoms. It is important to get medical treatment right away. Signs and symptoms may include:
Fever (usually above 101.4°F [38.6°C])
Sudden, severe headache
Stiff neck along with headache and sensitivity to light (can signal the meningitis form of illness and should never be ignored)
Meningococcal sepsis can cause a flat, pink to red to purple rash. However, the rash stands out the most on the lower legs and feet, and the forearms and hands.
Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
Generalized muscle aches
Take It From Us: Meningitis B Vaccination Matters
By: Alicia Stillman, MBA, MPH & Patti Wukovits, BSN, RN, AMB-BC
We are two mothers who tragically lost our vibrant, young and healthy daughters to meningitis B. Meningococcal disease is very dangerous, and we want you to know why it is important for teens to receive
both the MenB and MenACWY vaccine to help keep them from getting sick.
Before our daughters were diagnosed with meningitis B, we did not know it existed. By sharing our daughters' stories, we hope to increase awareness of meningitis B and help prevent more young lives from being lost.
Emily Stillman's story, shared by her mother Alicia:
Emily had a love for being on stage from a young age. Her dynamic presence and knack for impersonations made her legendary among our friends and family. On Jan. 31, 2013, she called home from college, complaining of a headache. We decided together that she would take over-the-counter medication and we would talk again in the morning.
Hours later, her headache worsened, and she decided to go to the hospital. The doctors suspected meningitis, and despite immediate antibiotic treatment, Emily lost consciousness due to severe brain and spinal column swelling. Despite our hopes, the swelling persisted, and Emily was declared brain-dead. On Feb. 2, 2013, after only 36 hours in the hospital, Emily passed away at only 19 years old.
Kimberly Coffey's story, told by her mother Patti:
At 17 years old, Kim was looking forward to prom, graduation and pursuing her dream of becoming a pediatric nurse. One afternoon, she returned from school with body aches and a fever, flu-like symptoms. The following morning, she told me her entire body hurt, from her "eyelashes down to her toes." I saw a few tiny purple dots on one of her ankles, and as a registered nurse, I knew immediately that something was very wrong.
I rushed Kim to the hospital. Within hours, her heart and kidneys began to fail, and the purple rash spread rapidly. After a final scan confirmed that she had no brain activity, I had to make the most difficult decision of my life to remove my beautiful daughter from life support. Kim was buried three days before her high school graduation, in the prom dress she didn't have the chance to wear.
In both of our cases, when the doctors told us our daughters had meningitis, we thought—That can't be. Our daughters were vaccinated against meningitis! What we didn't know, and what so many still don't know today, is that there are two types of vaccines needed to be fully vaccinated against meningococcal disease—MenACWY and MenB.
The MenB vaccine was not yet available in the U.S. when our daughters needed it, but fortunately, it is now. We cannot emphasize enough the importance of both types of meningitis vaccines. Contact your healthcare provider to ensure your kids have received all the required doses of both vaccines.
Alicia Stillman and Patti Wukovits are members of the Meningitis B Action Project. To learn more and get involved, visit meningitisbactionproject.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
How is meningococcal disease treated?
Doctors will treat meningococcal disease with
antibiotics quickly after diagnosis or suspicion of the illness. These antibiotics may prevent the disease from getting worse when they are given shortly after symptoms occur. Depending on how serious the infection is, people with meningococcal disease may also require breathing support, medications to treat low blood pressure, surgery to remove dead tissue, or wound care for damaged skin.
When a person is diagnosed with meningococcal disease, health departments reach out to close contacts to make sure that they receive medical care, such as antibiotics.
Tips for college students & military recruits to protect against meningococcal disease
See your doctor and get up-to-date on vaccines before you go.
If you are planning to attend college away from home or join the military, it is important to see your pediatrician for your
annual checkup and recommended immunizations, including
At the same visit, your pediatrician can give you advice about keeping healthy while you are away. Your pediatrician will also let you know when to return for recommended booster doses. (Plan ahead and schedule your return appointment during your next school break.)
In addition, here are other ways to reduce your risk of getting meningococcal disease:
Avoid smoking & alcohol. Even if you don't smoke, being in a smoking environment (secondhand smoke) can still increase your risk of getting meningococcal disease.
Strengthen your immune system by living a healthy lifestyle. This includes getting enough sleep, exercise, and maintaining a balanced diet.
Do not share eating utensils and drinking glasses with others.
Cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze, and
wash your hands often.
Find out who to call or where to go if you get sick. Become familiar with your college's
student health services.
Your pediatrician is available to answer any questions you may have about your health. Know how to contact your doctor with any concerns you may have.