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 are symptoms and signs of meningococcemia?

Infected patients initially experience fatigue, fever, headache, and body aches, similar to those experienced by people with influenza, including swine flu or bird flu. Once symptoms appear, the disease usually gets rapidly worse over several hours. In a minority of cases, symptoms continue at a low-grade level for several days.

As the symptoms worsen, shaking chills and high fever occur. Rash is common and appears like small red dots (petechiae) or a bleed into the skin (purpura) associated with vasculitis. The rash may appear anywhere on the body, even on the palms or soles or inside the mouth. It may be limited to a small section of the body or cover extensive areas. Thus, a careful physical examination of the skin and mucosal surfaces is important.

In addition to the rash, physical examination reveals a fast heart rate and often a low blood pressure and other signs of shock. Laboratory examination usually shows increases in white blood cell counts and may show low platelet counts (thrombocytopenia). The bacteria may spread to the heart, causing myocarditis. In severe cases, multiple organ systems may fail, including the kidneys, lungs and airways, liver, or heart. Uncommonly, the bacteria may cause a low-grade bloodstream infection (chronic meningococcemia) with fever, joint pain, and rash that lasts one to three weeks.

Although meningococcemia refers to an infection of the bloodstream, it is important to note that some patients with meningococcemia will develop meningococcal meningitis. Meningococcemia poses a higher risk of shock and death than meningococcal meningitis. Thus, although they are defined differently and have different prognoses, there is significant overlap between meningococcemia and meningococcal meningitis.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/7/2015
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