Kids Health Info

Meningococcal infection

  • Meningococcal infection is caused by a bacteria (germ) called meningococcus, and can cause serious infections including:

    • Meningitis - an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord.
    • Septicaemia - a serious infection of the blood.
    • Infections in other parts of the body, such as in the joints.

    These infections can come on and become extremely serious very quickly. Meningococcal infection may cause life long disabilities or death in about one in 10 people. Many people carry the bacteria in their noses and throats without getting sick. They are called healthy carriers. Healthy carriers can spread the bacteria to other people. The meningococcus bacteria is spread by tiny drops of fluid from the nose and throat through coughing, sneezing, spluttering and sharing eating and drinking utensils. It is not easy to get infected because once out of the body, the bacteria do not live long.

    Signs and symptoms

    Children and adults may have one or more of these symptoms if they have meningococcal infection:

    • high fever (temperature over 39oC)
    • severe headache
    • stiffness and pain in the neck, shoulders, back and other muscles
    • skin rash of small bright red spots or purple spots or bruises which do not turn white (blanch) when you press on them
    • dislike of bright lights (photophobia)
    • lethargy, drowsiness or confusion
    • nausea and vomiting.

    Babies may:

    • have a fever (temperature above 38oC)
    • have a high pitched, moaning cry
    • be irritable, agitated or just be unsettled
    • be refusing or not waking for feeds
    • be vomiting
    • be difficult to wake or be lethargic and floppy
    • have pale or blotchy skin
    • have a rash of small bright red spots or purple spots or bruises which do not turn white (blanch) when you press on them. 

    In newborns and babies, the typical symptoms may be hard to detect.

    Symptoms will show up within two to 10 days (but usually about three to four days) after your child has been in contact with meningococcus. Symptoms often begin suddenly.

    Anyone showing signs of meningococcal infection needs to see a doctor or be taken to the nearest hospital emergency department immediately.

    Treatment

    • If your child has symptoms of meningococcus they will be treated in hospital with antibiotics.
    • Early treatment with antibiotics is the key to saving their life.
    • Diagnosis is not always easy to make in the beginning. If your child is sent home by the doctor or hospital and becomes worse or doesn't improve, take them straight back to the nearest hospital emergency department.

    Treatment for 'contact' people

    If your child has been in contact with a person who has meningococcus, they may need antibiotic treatment. Contact people may include:

    • Somebody who lives in the same house and shares meals and living space.
    • A person who has contact with your child's mouth or nose secretions. This can happen by using the same eating and drinking utensils, through kissing (friends, boyfriends and girlfriends) or adolescents and adults sharing cigarettes. 
    • A person who has done medical treatments such as giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on your child.
    • Children mouthing and sharing toys, such as in group day care centres, family day care, playgroup or kindergarten.

    By law, doctors treating patients with suspected or confirmed meningococcal disease must notify the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). You may be contacted by DHHS staff for more information. Your doctor and DHHS will let you know who needs to have antibiotic treatment.

    Antibiotics

    Rifampicin is the antibiotic medication that is used to eliminate the meningococcus bacteria from the contact people. This will prevent the disease from being passed on to others. Usually two doses are given each day for two days.

    Any contacts who need to take rifampicin must tell their doctor if they:

    • take medicine for epilepsy
    • take medicine that thins the blood (such as warfarin)
    • may be pregnant or are breastfeeding
    • have a history of liver or kidney disease
    • have had a reaction to rifampicin in the past.

    If you are a contact person and have any of the above, you should not take rifampicin. There are other medicines you can safely take.

    Side effects of rifampicin

    • Body secretions such as urine (wee), stools (poo), saliva, sputum (spit), sweat and tears may turn red or orange in color. This change is only temporary.
    • Stomach aches, vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, dizziness or pain in the arms and legs. These symptoms will go away after the medicine is finished.
    • Soft contact lenses may be permanently stained red or orange. They should not be worn until 48 hours after finishing the medicine.
    • Birth control pills (such as the oral contraceptive pill) may not work properly when taking rifampicin.

    Follow the instructions for taking rifampicin carefully.

    Taking rifampicin does not guarantee prevention of the illness. If any of the above symptoms for meningococcal infection develop, that person must seek urgent medical attention.

    Prevention of meningococcal infection

    • Have your child vaccinated against meningococcal C disease.  The vaccine provides over 90 per cent protection against meningococcal C disease. Please discuss all side effects with your doctor.
    • Children of parents who smoke are at a greater risk of getting meningococcal disease. For help to quit smoking, call Quitline on 131 848.

    Key points to remember

    • These infections can develop very quickly and can be deadly in about one in 10 people. Survivors may be affected for life.
    • If your child has been in contact with a person who has meningococcus they may need antibiotic treatment as a precaution.
    • Symptoms will show up within two to 10 days (usually three to four days) after your child has been in contact with meningococcus.
    • If your child is sent home by the doctor or hospital and becomes worse or doesn't improve, take them straight back to the nearest hospital emergency department.

    For more information

    Fact sheet developed in consultation with the RCH department of General Medicine. First published: 2003. Reviewed: December 2010.

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Disclaimer 
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.