Diagnosis, Treatment, and Complications

Meningococcal disease is very serious and can be deadly in a matter of hours. Early diagnosis and treatment are very important.

Diagnosis

Meningococcal disease can be difficult to diagnose because the signs and symptoms are often similar to those of other illnesses. If a doctor suspects meningococcal disease, they will collect samples of blood or cerebrospinal fluid (fluid near the spinal cord). Doctors then send the samples to a laboratory for testing.  If Neisseria meningitidis bacteria are in the samples, laboratorians can grow (culture) the bacteria. Growing the bacteria in the laboratory allows doctors to know the specific type of bacteria that is causing the infection. Knowing this helps doctors decide which antibiotic will work best. Other tests can sometimes detect and identify the bacteria if the cultures do not.

Lumbar puncture to collect sample of cerebrospinal fluid

Lumbar puncture to collect sample of cerebrospinal fluid. Copyrighted image

©Teresa Winslow – US Government has certain rights

Treatment

Doctors treat meningococcal disease with a number of antibiotics. It is important that treatment start as soon as possible. If a doctor suspects meningococcal disease, they will give the patient antibiotics right away. Antibiotics help reduce the risk of dying.

Depending on how serious the infection is, people with meningococcal disease may need other treatments, including:

  • Breathing support
  • Medications to treat low blood pressure
  • Surgery to remove dead tissue
  • Wound care for parts of the body with damaged skin

Complications

Even with antibiotic treatment, 10 to 15 in 100 people infected with meningococcal disease will die. Up to 1 in 5 survivors will have long-term disabilities, such as loss of limb(s), deafness, nervous system problems, or brain damage.

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Page last reviewed: May 31, 2019