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By Casey De Farria
Casey De Farria
16 Aug, 2021

What is the difference between meningococcal and meningitis?

Meningococcal disease is caused by infection with Neisseria meningitidis of which there are several serogroups (different variations) – A, B, C, W and Y. Meningococcal often causes meningitis.

Meningitis means inflammation of the membranes ‘meninges’ lining
the brain. The two most common types of meningitis are bacterial and viral;

Bacterial meningitis is the most common life-threatening type
of meningitis and can cause death within hours. Most cases
of bacterial meningitis in children and adults are caused by
meningococcal and pneumococcal bacteria. In newborn babies, the most common causes of bacterial meningitis include Group B streptococcal, E
coli, and Listeria bacteria.

Viral meningitis is quite a common complication of some
common viral illnesses e.g. herpes simplex virus, echovirus. Viral
meningitis is rarely fatal and not usually injurious unless the
patient also has an immune disease.

Sepsis – which we also need to mention here – is a medical emergency and needs immediate treatment. It happens when the body is fighting an infection but it starts to attack itself. Sepsis can damage many parts of the body and can even cause death.

In other words, meningococcal infection can lead to meningitis, and also sepsis. Read more about sepsis here.

The symptoms of Meningococcal disease:

  • Sudden onset of fever
  • Headache
  • Neck stiffness
  • Joint pain
  • A rash of red-purple spots or bruises that don’t disappear (blanch) with pressure
  • Dislike of bright lights
  • Nausea and vomiting

And in children, the symptoms above can also be noted with;

  • Irritability
  • Difficulty waking
  • High-pitched crying
  • Refusal to eat

Note that these more common symptoms may follow less specific symptoms including leg pain, cold hands and abnormal skin colour.

The Symptoms of Meningitis:

  • Arching of the back (infants)
  • Behavioural changes
  • Blank, staring expression
  • Bulging fontanelle (infants)
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Diarrhoea
  • Dislike of being handled (infants)
  • Drowsy or difficult to wake
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Listless, less responsive
  • Loss of appetite, refusing food (infants)
  • Muscle, leg or joint pain
  • Neck retraction with arching of the back (infants)
  • Pale or blotchy skin
  • Rash or spots that don’t fade with pressure (also called purpure or petechiae)*
  • Rapid breathing
  • Seizures, fits or convulsions
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Unusual high-pitched cry (infants)
  • Vomiting

If your little one is showing symptoms of meningococcal disease or meningitis, seek medical attention urgently, especially if there is persistent fever, irritability, drowsiness or lethargy, a child is not feeding normally, or symptoms have come on or worsened very quickly. Do not wait for all symptoms or the rash to appear.

How are they spread?

  • Meningococcal bacteria are not easily spread from person to person and do not survive well outside the human body. The bacteria are passed between people in the secretions from the back of the nose and throat. This generally requires close and prolonged contact with a person carrying the bacteria who is usually completely well. An example of ‘close and prolonged contact’ is living in the same household or intimate kissing. Meningococcal bacteria are not easily spread by sharing drinks, food or cigarettes.
  • The viruses and bacteria that cause most cases of meningitis are
    spread by prolonged, close personal contact. However, if immunity is
    low, viral meningitis can spread quickly. Do NOT share drink bottles or food. Cover your mouth and nose when sneezing. Wash your hands regularly especially after going to the bathroom or changing a nappy. Avoid mouth to mouth kissing with strangers, sharing a drinking glass, lipstick, food.

Vaccination is the best way to prevent meningococcal and meningitis. Vaccines include:

  • Meningococcal C – given to children at 12 months of age through the
    National Immunisation Plan.
  • Meningococcal B – Bexsero vaccine available by prescription.
  • Meningococcal ACWY – Menveo, Menactra and Nimenrix brands are
    available through prescription from your GP. However some states in
    Australia vaccinate the 15 and 19 year old age group for free.
  • Pneumococcal – Pneumococcal conjugate (13vPCV) given at
    2 months, 4 months, 6 months through the National Immunisation
  • Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) – given at 2 months, 4 months,
    6 months and 12 months through the National Immunisation Plan.

Check with your GP or your state immunisation program 1800 671 811 if you have any questions about these vaccines.

References and resources:


The Meningitis Centre Australia:
Types of meningitis
Signs and Symptoms
Meningococcal and Meningitis pamphlet


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