Meningococcal disease

Family Health Diary

Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria. Three out of every twenty people in New Zealand carry the bacteria in their nasal passages, they don’t get the infection themselves but unknowingly pass it on to others.

Meningococcal disease can affect anyone and can make someone very sick or even die. When someone has meningococcal disease the infection might affect the membrane around the brain and cause meningitis which can lead to serious complications or death. The other common thing that happens is that the infection can get into the blood and cause what doctors call sepsis (full body infection). The infection spreads very quickly and can be fatal.

It is most common in children under the age of five, teenagers, and young adults. First year university students living in student accommodation seem to be particularly at risk. The infection is passed from person to person by droplets of liquid from the nose or mouth. It usually takes three or four days from contact till you get sick but it can take up to 10 days.

Importantly, because it is caused by bacteria (not a virus) it can be stopped by antibiotics but these need to be started as soon as possible. If your doctor thinks you or your child has meningococcal disease they will start you on antibiotics straight away even if they are sending you straight to hospital. Even with antibiotics, the disease can progress very quickly and cause serious illness or death.

It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease because it can develop very quickly and people can die within hours of showing symptoms. It can be treated with antibiotics, but early treatment is very important. It can be difficult to decide if an infection is meningococcal disease because some of the symptoms are similar to other infections like the flu: high temperature, sleepiness, joint and muscle pains.

Meningococcal disease, signs and symptoms

  • There is a distinctive purple or red spotty rash. Over half of children get this when they have meningococcal disease. Unfortunately the disease may be well established before the rash is seen. Some people do not get the rash at all.
  • Headache, especially a really bad headache or one that won’t go away when treated with paracetamol.
  • Extreme pain when you try and bend your chin down to your chest.
  • Dislike of bright lights
  • Vomiting
  • Crying
  • Refusing to feed (for an infant)

If you notice any of the symptoms of meningococcal disease contact your doctor straight away or phone 111. Tell them the symptoms. You can call Healthline free on 0800 611 116 at any hour of the day or night, even if you have already been seen by a health professional and been told the symptoms you have are nothing to worry about. If you are still concerned do not hesitate to phone again or phone someone else.

Immediate treatment is the key to recovering from meningococcal disease.


Of course prevention is the best option. The disease is passed from person to person by moisture droplets from the nose and mouth, therefore:

  • cover your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough and wash and dry your hands
  • avoid sharing eating or drinking utensils, toothbrushes, pacifiers
  • wash your hands often.

This advice might sound familiar. It is the key to reducing the spread of many diseases in our community.

For meningococcal disease there are also vaccines available. Some are free for specific groups of people. As meningococcal disease is quite common among young adults in their first year living away from home it is good to consider vaccination for anyone who is leaving home for the first time. One of the meningococcal vaccines is free for people aged 13-25 years in their first year of living in boarding school hostels, tertiary education halls of residence, military barracks, or prisons.

There are other meningococcal vaccines that are free for people who are at risk for some reason, for instance a health condition. Remember prevention is far more certain than treatment for protecting your loved ones.

Written by Linda Caddick

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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