Meningococcal disease

Meningococcal disease isn’t easy to catch, but it’s a severe infection caused by bacteria from the nose or throat invading the body. Find out who is most at risk, and how to recognise the symptoms.

Meningococcal disease is a severe infection caused by bacteria from the nose or throat invading the body. The bacteria can either infect the lining around the brain and spinal cord, or cause blood poisoning or both. Those at the highest risk are:

  • children under 5
  • people between 15 and 24 years old
  • those living with people with meningococcal disease
  • people who are exposed to cigarette smoke
  • travellers to countries with high rates of meningococcal disease
  • people with a weakened immune system.

Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms of meningococcal disease don’t appear in any particular order and may appear differently in different people.

Symptoms in babies include:

  • fever
  • cold hands and feet
  • refusal to feed
  • vomiting
  • high pitched moan-like crying or whimpering
  • a dislike of being handled, fretful
  • rashes of red-purple spots or bruises that do not fade under pressure
  • having a blank and staring expression
  • a bulging fontanelle
  • being difficult to wake and lethargic
  • showing a pale and blotchy complexion.

Symptoms in older children and adults include:

  • vomiting
  • fever
  • headaches
  • a stiff neck
  • a dislike of bright lights
  • drowsiness
  • joint pain
  • having a rash of red-purple spots or bruises that do not fade under pressure.

How it spreads

It is not easy to catch meningococcal disease. Close and prolonged contact with an infected person is usually required. At any given time, about 10% of the community carry meningococcal bacteria harmlessly in their throat or nose. Although most are well, they are able to spread the bacteria to others, who may become sick. After exposure to the bacteria, it usually takes from 3 to 4 days to become ill, although sometimes it can be as little as 1 day or as long as 10 days.


Some types of meningococcal disease can be prevented by vaccination. Immunisation against the meningococcal A, C, W and Y strains is recommended as part of the Queensland Immunisation Schedule at 12 months of age. It is also offered to students in Year 10 through the School Immunisation Program and for adolescents aged 15 – 19 years through their doctor or regular immunisation provider.

Meningococcal B vaccine is available for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. People of all ages with certain medical conditions that increase their risk of meningococcal disease are also eligible for meningococcal vaccines.

To prevent spreading when a case is identified, public health authorities will advise contacts of the infected person. If necessary, they will prescribe a short course of antibiotics or advise them if they should be vaccinated. Generally, this is only required for household and close contacts. As antibiotics and vaccination may not always prevent meningococcal disease, all contacts need to be alert for symptoms for 2 weeks after their last contact with the infected person. If any symptoms develop, it is important to seek urgent medical advice.

Anyone who has been in contact with a person with meningococcal disease is able to attend childcare, school, work, and other activities, whether or not they have received antibiotics or vaccination.

As smoking increases the chance of someone carrying the bacteria and spreading it to others, it is especially important not to smoke around young children who are particularly vulnerable to meningococcal disease.


A person with meningococcal usually needs to be admitted to hospital for appropriate care and treated with antibiotics. Early treatment can sometimes prevent serious complications.

If you or someone around you have any symptoms, seek urgent medical attention or call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84). Early treatment can sometimes prevent serious complications.