Symptoms of meningococcal disease

A leg with a red-purple rash. A glass is being pressed against it, and the rash has not faded compared with surrounding skin not under the glass.
Image courtesy of Meningitis Now

Meningococcal disease has many symptoms, some of which can be similar to other illnesses, like respiratory viruses or gastroenteritis. 

Symptoms can vary but may include:

  • sudden fever
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • headache
  • neck stiffness
  • joint pain
  • dislike of bright lights
  • irritability
  • a red-purple rash that doesn’t disappear when pressure is applied (a rash does not always appear or it may occur late in the disease).

In young children, symptoms may also include:

  • irritability
  • difficulty waking up
  • high-pitched crying
  • rapid or laboured breathing
  • refusal to eat.

Who is at risk of meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease can affect anyone, but it is more common among children under 5 years old, and adolescents and young adults aged 15-25 years old.

People at slightly greater risk of meningococcal disease include:

  • close contacts of people with meningococcal disease (who may also have been exposed to the same carrier)
  • people who smoke, or are exposed to tobacco smoke
  • people who practice intimate (deep mouth) kissing, especially with more than one partner
  • people who have recently had a viral upper respiratory tract illness (like a cold or the flu)
  • people who travel to areas where meningococcal disease is more common or to mass gatherings such as the Hajj
  • people with no working spleen or who have certain other medical conditions.

Act fast if you suspect meningococcal disease

  • Up to 10% of people with meningococcal disease die, even with rapid treatment.
  • Up to 40% may end up with significant long-term effects, including limb or digit amputation or skin scarring.

People infected with meningococcal disease can become extremely unwell, very quickly, often within hours of the first symptoms appearing.

Patients with meningococcal disease need urgent treatment with antibiotics, in hospital. Treatment will usually begin before the diagnosis is confirmed by tests.

If you think you or someone you know could have meningococcal disease, seek urgent medical advice.

If you’ve already seen a doctor but symptoms continue to worsen, consult your doctor again or go to the Emergency Department.

Current as at: Thursday 4 August 2022
Contact page owner: Communicable Diseases