Meningococcal infection factsheet


Meningococcal infection is a life-threatening condition that is caused by the meningococcal bacteria. The meningococcal bacteria lives in the back of the nose and throat and can spread from person to person through fluids from:

  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • kissing
  • sharing cups, drink bottles and cutlery with someone who is unwell.

Meningococcal infection can cause:

  • meningitis – when the lining around the brain and spinal cord becomes inflamed
  • septicaemia – when bacteria get into the bloodstream and cause blood poisoning
  • sepsis – when the body attacks its own tissue and organs while fighting infection.

Meningococcal infection is more likely in children who: 

  • are under five years old
  • are between 15-25 years old
  • have had a recent cold 
  • are exposed to a lot of tobacco smoke, particularly indoors or in a car.

Meningococcal infection is life-threatening and is considered a medical emergency. If you think your child has a meningococcal infection, go to your nearest emergency department as soon as possible or call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

 Signs and symptoms

A child's arm with a rash from meningococcal infection. Text: Purple rash on a child's arm.

Children with meningococcal infection will usually become very ill, very quickly.

Meningococcal infection will commonly cause a red or purple spotty rash that does not turn white when pressed on with a clear glass. This rash may not always appear, or it may only show up at a late stage of infection. 

Other common symptoms of meningococcal infection can be general and may look like other illnesses.

They include:

  • a high fever
  • irritability
  • drowsiness
  • being “floppy”
  • vomiting and loss of appetite
  • headache
  • changes in breathing
  • seizures.

Babies and younger children who cannot speak might have symptoms like:

  • a bulging spot on the head
  • a cry that sounds different than usual.

Older children may be able to tell you about symptoms that they can feel, like:

  • a bad headache
  • a stiff neck
  • confusion
  • light hurting their eyes
  • pain when walking.

Children who have a meningococcal infection may not have all these symptoms and may not have a rash. 

Meningococcal infection is life-threatening and is considered a medical emergency. If you think your child has a meningococcal infection, go to your nearest emergency department as soon as possible or call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.


If you think your child has a meningococcal infection, go to your nearest emergency department as soon as possible or call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

The hospital will check your child’s symptoms and may order tests, including:

  • blood test
  • swab of the nose, throat, or any skin sores
  • lumbar puncture – when a sample of fluid is taken from around the spine.


Children with a meningococcal infection are treated in hospital. Antibiotics are given straight into your child’s bloodstream using an intravenous (IV) cannula.

When treated early with antibiotics, children with a meningococcal infection have a high chance of recovery with no long-term issues.


Long-term issues after meningococcal infection

Some children will have longer term issues after meningococcal infection that may or may not get better with time. These can include:

  • ongoing headaches
  • scarring on the skin
  • loss of hearing
  • tinnitus - constant ringing in the ears
  • blurry or double vision
  • stiff and aching joints
  • organ failure
  • brain damage
  • learning difficulties.

Severe meningococcal infections can also stop healthy blood supply to different body parts. This causes a condition called gangrene.

Gangrene is when body tissue dies, turning a green-black colour. Gangrene is a medical emergency that must be treated with antibiotics and removing the affected body parts through surgery. 

Early treatment of meningococcal infection with antibiotics will give your child the highest chance of recovery with no long-term issues.

Meningococcal vaccine

Vaccination is the best way to lower the risk of meningococcal infection. 

There are five main strains of meningococcal bacteria - A, B, C, W and Y. 

Under the National Immunisation Program, children in Australia will receive a vaccination for meningococcal ACWY at 12 months old and between 15 and 19 years old.

The meningococcal B vaccine can be purchased from your local doctor as a private prescription. The meningococcal B vaccine is also provided free for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and others with specific conditions. 

This vaccine has no Medicare rebate, but some private health insurance covers will provide a rebate. Speak to your local doctor or your health insurance for more information about the vaccine and pricing.

Vaccination lowers the risk of meningococcal infection. Children with symptoms of meningococcal infection need treatment as soon as possible, even if vaccinated.

Public health response to meningococcal infection

Around 10-30% of people in the community carry the meningococcus bacteria in the back of their nose and throat without getting sick. People who have the bacteria without becoming sick are called carriers.

Carriers of meningococcal bacteria will not show any signs of illness, so you will not know if your child has been in contact with someone with the bacteria. This is why it is important for children to have the meningococcal vaccine.

Meningococcal infection can spread in the community. When your child is admitted to the hospital for treatment, you will be contacted by the public health unit.

The public health unit will arrange antibiotics for people in your household and ask questions about where your child has been in the last few days. This is called contact tracing.

Contact tracing helps to figure out where your child may have gotten the infection, and who else may need antibiotics to prevent illness.

Last updated Tuesday 30th January 2024


This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024