Some people carry the bacteria in their upper respiratory passages. The bacteria can invade their bodies to cause meningococcal disease or can spread to other people via infectious respiratory secretions.
There are different groups of these bacteria — called serogroups — that cause infection. For example, from 1994 to 1998, approximately two-thirds of cases of meningococcal disease in people ages 18 to 23 were caused by three serogroups: C, Y and W135. This is important because the meningococcal vaccine protects against these three serogroups plus one other — serogroup A.
Signs and symptoms of the types of meningococcal infection include:
Bacteremia — fever; malaise; muscle aches; headache
Meningococcemia — fever; rash; overwhelming infection with multiple organs affected
Meningitis — fever; headache; stiff neck; nausea; vomiting; photophobia (sensitivity to light); confusion; sleepiness; seizures
In newborns and infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache and stiff neck may be absent or difficult to detect.
If your child has any of these symptoms, he or she should see a doctor immediately, since untreated meningococcal infections can rapidly worsen and lead to shock and death within hours.
For adolescents or college students who don t relish seeing doctors, you as a parent need to impress upon your son or daughter the importance of not ignoring these symptoms.
The diagnosis of meningococcal infection is made in a laboratory by growing the bacteria from the affected site — the blood in bacteremia and meningococcemia and the cerebrospinal fluid in meningitis.
Cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord, is obtained through a procedure called a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap. This procedure is routinely done when meningitis is suspected. During a spinal tap, a special needle is inserted into an area in the lower back, where fluid in the spinal canal is readily accessible.
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