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Meningococcal disease - What are meningitis and septicaemia?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Introduction

Meningitis and septicaemia are very serious. But most people recover if they get treatment quickly. In this article we look at meningitis and septicaemia caused by bacteria called meningococcus. These infections are also called meningococcal disease.

We've brought together the best research about meningococcal disease and weighed up the evidence about how to treat it.

Meningitis and septicaemia are serious conditions caused by an infection. Both conditions can lead to life-threatening symptoms in a matter of hours, and early treatment is essential.

Several kinds of infection can cause meningitis. You could be infected by viruses, bacteria, or fungi.

  • When one of these germs infects the fluid in your spinal cord and around your brain, it's called meningitis.[1] Meningitis means inflammation of the meninges. The meninges are the layers of tissue around your brain and spinal cord.

  • If the germ gets into your blood, it can cause blood poisoning (septicaemia).

This information looks at meningitis and septicaemia caused by bacteria called meningococcus. These infections are also called meningococcal disease. We haven't looked at meningitis caused by a virus, which tends to be a less serious illness.[2]

There are lots of different kinds of meningococcal bacteria. Most meningococcal disease is caused by groups called A, B, C, W-135, and Y. Group B is the most common cause of meningococcal disease in the UK.

You can get meningitis or septicaemia on their own. Or you can get both at the same time. Of the two diseases, septicaemia is the most dangerous.

Of the people who get infected with meningococcal bacteria:[3]

  • About 5 in 10 get both meningitis and septicaemia

  • About 3 in 10 just get septicaemia

  • About 2 in 10 just get meningitis.

Babies under 12 months are most likely to be affected by meningococcal disease, followed by teenagers between 15 and 18.[4] Students in their first year of university who live in halls of residence are also at greater risk.[5]

Children whose parents smoke also seem to be at greater risk of meningococcal disease. So do children who live in poor conditions.[6]

Since 1999, a vaccine to prevent group C meningococcal meningitis has been part of the usual childhood immunisations in the UK.[7] This has reduced the number of people who get diseases caused by group C meningococcus. But other groups of meningococcal bacteria, especially group B, still cause lots of infections every year.[7] To read more, see Who should be vaccinated?

Glossary

bacteria

Bacteria are tiny organisms. There are lots of different types. Some are harmful and can cause disease. But some bacteria live in your body without causing any harm.

fungus

A fungus is an organism that is sometimes considered to be a type of plant. A fungus lives by feeding on other organisms. The mushrooms we eat in salads are fungi, but so are candida and cryptococcus, which can cause infections in people's bodies.

spinal cord

Your spinal cord is a thick bundle of nerves that runs down your backbone (spine). These nerves carry messages between your brain and the rest of your body. The bones (vertebrae) in your neck and back protect your spinal cord. If your spinal cord gets damaged, you may lose feeling in your legs or arms.

viruses

Viruses are microbes (tiny organisms) that need the cells of humans or other animals to exist. They use the machinery of cells to reproduce. Then they spread to other cells in the body.

For more terms related to Meningococcal disease

Citations

For references related to Meningococcal disease click here.
Last Updated: July 03, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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