Meningococcal disease is a rare, sometimes deadly, bacterial infection. It can strike quickly and lead to devastating complications such as hearing loss, brain or kidney damage or limb amputations. Vaccination can help prevent meningococcal disease. Health officials recommend routine vaccination of adolescents and young adults because they have a higher risk for this infection than others. People of all ages with certain other risk conditions should also be vaccinated. It is not easy for parents or healthcare professionals to recognize meningococcal disease because early signs and symptoms can resemble influenza or other viral infections. In some cases, meningococcal disease moves so quickly it leads to death or disability within hours. Because meningococcal infection is hard to identify and can progress rapidly, prevention is critical. Vaccination provides the best chance of protection for meningococcal disease, but it cannot prevent every case. It’s important for parents and healthcare professionals to learn about the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease so they can better recognize it in their children or patients. For the sake of simplicity the terms “meningococcal disease,” “bacterial meningitis” and “meningitis” are often used interchangeably. However, there are medical differences between these terms:
- “Meningitis” is an inflammation of the protective membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. Although it is usually caused by bacteria or viruses, it can also be caused by injury, cancer or certain drugs. (See “Is it viral, bacterial or fungal?” for more information.)
- “Bacterial Meningitis” is meningitis caused by bacteria.
- “Meningococcal Disease” is an infection caused by a specific type of bacteria (Neisseria meningitidis). When these bacteria invade the brain and spinal cord, they cause meningitis. However, these bacteria can also poison the bloodstream. When this happens, it is called meningococcemia. The terms “bacterial meningitis” or “meningitis” are often used to describe bloodstream infection even though there is a medical distinction between the terms.
In brief, someone who has meningitis might not have meningococcal disease and vice versa. Your healthcare provider can provide more information.