Meningococcemia: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

What is Meningococcemia?

Meningococcemia, also known by the name of meningococcal septicemia, is an extremely severe and severe variant of blood poisoning which affects the whole body. The main presenting feature of Meningococcemia is the presence of a rash all over the body that does not fade on its own. This rash is primarily caused due to blood vessels that get damaged due to Meningococcemia. This results in the blood seeping to the skin surface causing a rash. There is no age barrier for Meningococcemia and any person can get this disease; however, it is mostly seen in babies and small children.[2]

What is Meningococcemia?

Meningococcemia is extremely contagious and any direct contact with saliva or other fluid from an infected person can cause this disease. The risk of Meningococcemia exponentially rises in crowded places like a daycare center or a school or college. Additionally, sharing utensils is also one of the factors that increase the risk of Meningococcemia.[1]

Meningococcemia is a medical condition that needs to be diagnosed and treated at the earliest to prevent complications which can be rather serious and include losing mental balance, hearing loss, and even amputation of the affected area. In addition to the rash, a person with Meningococcemia will also have an upper respiratory tract infection with fever and problems with the eyes and the ears. Some people also go into a sudden state of shock which can be extremely serious if medical treatment is not given.[2]

Meningococcemia has two variants, namely fulminant and chronic. The former develops very fast and is far more severe than the latter which waxes and wanes in severity.[1]

What Causes Meningococcemia?

The primary cause for Meningococcemia is the N. meningitidis bacteria. These bacteria enter the body and start damaging the blood vessels which results in internal bleeding and severe damage to the vital organs of the body. Some blood also seeps through the skin resulting in the typical rash as seen with Meningococcemia.[2]

Some people who are colonized with these bacteria are less at risk for getting Meningococcemia. In fact, studies suggest that less than 1% of people who have colonization of the bacteria causing Meningococcemia are at risk for developing this condition. The Meningitis Research Foundation in Canada opines that approximately 20% of people are active carriers of the N. meningitidis bacteria normally present in the nose and throat but they do not have any symptoms due to it.[1]

It should be noted that an individual who is a carrier of the bacteria can pass it on to others which may cause symptoms. This occurs by way of droplets that come from the mouth of the infected person. This usually happens due to coughing, sneezing, kissing, and sharing food. Sharing other objects like toothbrush or drinks also may lead to transmission of the bacteria from one person to another.[1]

What are the Symptoms of Meningococcemia?

The symptom onset for Meningococcemia is normally between couple of days to maximum a week after the bacteria infiltrates the body. If a person starts to notice symptoms suggestive of Meningococcemia then it is recommended to go and start treatment as early as possible since complications develop quite quickly and are extremely serious.[2]

During the initial phase of Meningococcemia, the patient will experience symptoms that are similar to flu like fever, fatigue, chills, pain in the muscles and joints. The extremities will feel cold. There may be episodes of nausea and vomiting. The mood will be irritable. The breathing rate will be higher than normal. Inflammation of the pharynx, tonsils, and larynx are also quite commonly seen in people with Meningococcemia.[2]

However, within hours of the first symptoms, the infection starts to worsen and the patient starts developing rashes in the body. This is a telltale sign along with the other symptoms that the individual may be dealing with Meningococcemia. These rashes do not lose its color even when put under pressure with an object.[2]

How Is Meningococcemia Diagnosed?

A confirmative diagnosis of Meningococcemia in its initial stages is quite difficult since the symptoms are similar to a common flu. However, if Meningococcemia is suspected then treatment will begin with antibiotics immediately. The most characteristic feature of Meningococcemia is the presence of the rash and along with the symptoms described above more or less confirms the diagnosis of Meningococcemia.[2]

In some cases, especially when an individual has a dark complexion of the skin, the rashes may not become instantly evident. In such instances it is better to look at the lighter areas of the body like the soles of the feet since this is the area where the rashes will be more visible. Additionally, the physician may order certain tests where spinal fluid may be taken and sent for analysis to look for the offending bacteria. These tests along with the symptoms confirm the diagnosis of Meningococcemia.[2]

How is Meningococcemia Treated?

Meningococcemia is a condition that requires prompt treatment. Since it is a bacterial infection, antibiotics are the primary form of treatment. If treatment is given in a timely fashion then the likelihood of complications is quite rare. It should be noted here that even the slightest suspicion for Meningococcemia prompts the physician to start the patient on antibiotics as the condition spreads quite quickly and complications are hard to control.[2]

Treatment is also given to prevent the brain from any damage due to the condition. Physicians also screen people who have been in close contact with the patient to ensure that they have not contracted this condition and if found immediate treatment is started. Antibiotics are administered for a minimum period of 24 hours to limit the spread of the bacteria. Normally, antibiotics will be given for a period of a week to completely eliminate the bacteria causing Meningococcemia.[2]

In extremely severe cases where the supply of oxygen to a specific part of the body or tissues gets affected then amputation may need to be done. Even in people who are able to survive Meningococcemia the issues with veins and arteries but the bones and the limbs usually are not affected long term. In case of amputations, regular checkups are required to prevent any complications that arise in the future.[2]

What Is The Prognosis Of Meningococcemia?

Meningococcemia is an extremely serious medical condition if it is not treated appropriately. People may develop neurological and physical complications if timely treatment is not given. The bacteria that causes Meningococcemia severely damages the blood vessels interrupting the flow of blood to the vital organs of the body causing damage to the skin, loss of limb, and even at times organ failure. If treatment is not given then this disease may prove fatal for the patient. However, if timely diagnosis and treatment is started full recovery ie generally made with complete eradication of the offending bacteria.[2]