Meningococcemia

  • Medical Author:
    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP

    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP is the Chair of the Department of Medicine at Michigan State University. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Medical School, and completed her residency in Internal Medicine and a fellowship in Infectious Diseases at Indiana University.

  • Medical Author: Randall Ben Lamfers, MD
  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

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What is meningococcemia?

Meningococcemia is a bacterial infection of the blood due to Neisseria meningitidis. This bacterium is most famous for causing meningococcal meningitis which may also be present in meningococcemia. Many bacteria can cause bloodstream infections (septicemia), including staphylococci, Streptococcus B, or Streptococcus A. In addition, other bacteria can cause meningitis, including Streptococcus pneumoniae or leptospirosis. However, N. meningitidis is concerning because it is more contagious than these other bacteria and causes very serious disease. Rates of infection are typically highest in older children and adolescents, although meningococcemia has been reported in all age groups.

What causes meningococcemia?

As mentioned, the bacterium that causes meningococcemia is called N. meningitidis, also known as "meningococcus." Meningococcemia may also be called meningococcal bacteremia. Under the microscope, the bacteria usually appear in pairs, looking like two small kidney beans side by side. N. meningitidis is surrounded by a capsule made of complex carbohydrates called polysaccharides. These polysaccharides stimulate the immune system, which helps the body fight the infection. There are several different types (serogroups) of N. meningitidis. Most human disease is caused by serogroups A, B, C, Y, and W135.

Transmission of N. meningitidis is from person to person through respiratory secretions. Some people can harbor the bacteria in their throats and not get sick, which is called a "carrier" state. In others, the bacteria rapidly invade the tissues and bloodstream and cause disease.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/7/2015
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