Meningococcemia is a rare infection caused by the Neisseria meningitidis bacteria. This is the same type of bacteria that can cause meningitis.
When the bacteria infect the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, it’s called meningitis. When the infection remains in the blood but doesn’t infect the brain or spinal cord, it’s called meningococcemia.
It’s also possible to have both meningitis and meningococcemia at the same time. In this case, the bacteria appears in the bloodstream first and then passes into the brain.
Neisseria meningitidis bacteria are common in the upper respiratory tract and don’t necessarily cause illness. Although anyone can get meningococcemia, it’s most common in babies, children, and young adults.
An infection by Neisseria meningitidis, whether it becomes meningitis or meningococcemia, is considered a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention.
What causes meningococcemia?
Neisseria meningitidis, the bacteria that cause meningococcemia, can live harmlessly in your upper respiratory tract. Simply being exposed to this germ isn’t enough to cause disease. Up to 10 percent of people may carry these bacteria. Fewer than 1 percent of those carriers become sick.
A person with this infection can spread the bacteria through coughing and sneezing.
What are the symptoms of meningococcemia?
You may only have a few symptoms initially. Common early symptoms include:
- rash consisting of small spots
- body acges
As the disease progresses, you may develop more serious symptoms, including:
- blood clots
- patches of bleeding under your skin
Who is likely to develop meningococcemia?
Around half of the total number of cases of meningococcal disease occur in children under 4 years old. This figure includes both meningitis and meningococcemia.
If you’ve recently moved into a group living situation, such as a dormitory, you’re more likely to develop the condition. If you’re planning to enter into such a living situation, your doctor may tell you to get vaccinated against this condition.
You’re also at an increased risk if you live with or have been in very close contact with someone who has the disease. Speak with your doctor if this is the case. They may choose to give you prophylactic, or preventive, antibiotics.
What are risk factors for meningococcemia?
Children and adolescents 5 to 19 years of age are at highest risk for meningococcemia. Newborns acquire antibodies from their mothers via the placenta, although these antibodies fade after a few weeks or months. Toddlers are not immune, and there have been several exposures in day care settings. As children age, they gradually gain immunity to meningococcal strains by coming into contact with milder strains of the bacteria. However, because this immunity is imperfect, it is still possible for adults to get meningococcal disease.
The complement part of the immune system is critical in fighting off meningococcal disease. Patients who have a history of a specific genetic deficiency in the complement system, or who are taking an anti-complement drug for certain diseases, are at high risk for severe disease. The spleen is necessary for an effective immune response against encapsulated bacteria, so people are at higher risk for fulminant meningococcemia if they have had their spleens taken out (asplenia) or have spleens that function poorly (hyposplenism).
People who have been in close contact with an infected person for a long time are at increased risk to acquire the disease. People who live together in close quarters, such as military barracks or college dormitories, are at special risk for disease because one infected person can spread the disease to many others. One study showed that the attack rate in household contacts was 500 times greater than that of the general population.
source: medicinenet.com, healthline.com, webmd