Meningococcal infection

Disclaimer: This fact sheet is for education purposes only. Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for your child.

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What is meningococcal infection?

Meningococcus is a bacterial infection which can make people sick very quickly. There are two types of meningococcal. When it invades the blood stream it is called meningococcal septicaemia and when it spreads into the linings of the brain (the meninges) it is called meningococcal meningitis. Rapid treatment with antibiotics is needed as it is a bacterial infection.

Meningococcal septicaemia – what are the symptoms?

Meningococcal septicaemia can be very serious, it is a medical emergency and your local doctor should be called urgently. In most cases your child should be taken immediately to hospital. Children or young adults with meningococcal septicaemia are usually very ill. They can have a high fever and sometimes develop a red or purple rash (this looks like purple dots or bruises). However, it is important not to wait to see if the rash appears as it does not always develop. A useful test is to press a glass against the rash; if it stays the same colour and doesn't fade, then this is a more worrying rash. Children or adults with meningococcal septicaemia may have the following symptoms:

  • High fever
  • Have a fast heart rate
  • Red or purple rash
  • Cool hands and feet
  • Look pale
  • Lethargy and/or drowsiness
  • Diarrhoea and/or vomiting
  • Joint or muscle pains. 

It is important to remember that often not all these symptoms are present.

Meningococcal meningitis – what are the symptoms?

Meningitis is an infection of the lining of the brain (see also the Meningitis fact sheet). About half the children or adults with meningococcal meningitis have the same rash as those with meningococcal septicaemia. Some have no rash and at first the rash may consist of only a few very small spots.

Children or adults with meningitis may have the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Are pale
  • Look unwell
  • Have cold hands and feet (often up to the knees)
  • Have a fast heart rate
  • Complain that light hurts their eyes
  • Lethargy and/or drowsiness
  • Irritability or confusion
  • Loss of appetite or vomiting
  • May become unconscious
  • May have convulsions
  • Joint or muscle pains.

If you are worried your child may have meningitis, you must take your child to your local doctor or hospital immediately.

Remember that not all these symptoms will show at once.


Between 10-30% of the population carry the meningococcus (bacteria) in their throat at any time without getting sick. These people are "carriers" and they do not become ill at all. We can’t explain why some people get sick and others don’t. People who smoke are more likely to be carriers.

How are meningococci spread?

The meningococcus bacteria is spread from the upper respiratory tract from one person to another person as a result of very close contact with their nose or mouth, e.g. saliva. This may spread for example through coughing, sneezing or kissing. When in contact with a carrier, a person may also become a carrier, or they may develop the disease. Becoming sick with meningococcal disease is more likely in the very young, following a recent cold or with exposure to a lot of tobacco smoke, particularly indoors or in a car.

What is the outlook?

The outlook is much better if antibiotic treatment is started early in the illness. Most children and adults with meningococcal septicaemia or meningitis will recover with antibiotic treatment, without suffering any long-term problems. The illness can sometimes be devastating and up to one in 10 cases will die from it. Sometimes, survivors of meningococcal may develop long-term problems. Learning difficulties, sight and hearing problems, liver and kidney failure, and scarring caused by skin grafts may occur. Very rarely, children or young adults may get gangrene and lose fingers, toes or even one or more limbs. With early antibiotic treatment nearly all children get completely better.

What is the treatment?

The bacteria respond rapidly to treatment with an antibiotic, such as penicillin. Other treatment, such as a drip to give fluids, is also needed.


Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself, your loved ones and community from the harmful effects of meningococcal disease. If your child presents with any symptoms of meningococcal disease though, regardless of their vaccination status, take them to the hospital or your local doctor straight away.

Under the National Immunisation Program, meningococcal vaccines (ACWY) are provided free to babies at 12 months and adolescents. The meningococcal B vaccine is provided free for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and others with specific conditions. 

There are 5 main strains of meningococci (A, B, C, W and Y). In Australia, the most common cause of meningococcal disease is the B strain. All strains can affect people of any age but meningococcal B cases are more common in children aged less than 5 years old and in adolescents. If you have further questions about meningococcal vaccination and the different strains, talk to your doctor at your child's next visit. 

When a child comes into hospital with meningococcal infection, a member of the Public Health Unit will contact your family to arrange preventative antibiotics and to ask a few questions about where you child has been in the last few days before getting sick. This is so that the Public Health Unit can check that there are no other meningococcal disease cases that have occurred at the same time as your child getting sick and to make sure that anyone who needs antibiotics to prevent infection, can get them. Any meningococcal infection must be notified to the Public Health Unit (PHU) in your area. You will also be contacted by the PHU whose role is to assist in contacting recent close contacts of your child (e.g. childcare). Close contacts may also need preventative antibiotics.


Most children with fever and rash have a milder infection caused by a virus and not caused by a bacteria and thus do not have meningococcal disease. Viruses do not respond to antibiotics.

However, as meningococcal infection is serious, if you think your child may have a meningococcal infection because of the symptoms mentioned above, take your child to your doctor or hospital straight away, even if they have had a meningococcal vaccination.

If your child has turned 12 months of age and has not yet received their meningococcal vaccine, contact your doctor as we strongly recommend that your child be immunised.

The Children's Hospital at Westmead
Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick
Hunter New England Kids Health

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