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Meningococcal disease can appear in several different forms – as meningitis, as septicaemia (blood poisoning), or as a combination of both.

Meningitis is not the same as meningococcal disease. There are many different types of meningitis. It's the more dangerous bacterial form which may appear as meningococcal disease.

One of the stages of the distinctive meningococcal rash (bleeding into the skin) which can be a critical symptom of deadly septicemia (blood poisoning).

About the disease

"I've seen cases where someone has been well at breakfast - and dead by dinner!" – Dr Clayton Golledge, Microbiologist and Infectious Diseases expert

Meningococcal disease is an acute bacterial infection that can cause death within hours if not recognised and treated in time. Although the majority of victims will recover fully, 10% of those infected will die, and around 20% will have permanent disabilities, ranging from learning difficulties, sight and hearing problems, to liver and kidney failure, scarring caused by skin grafts and loss of fingers, toes and limbs.

One of the reasons this disease is hard to identify is that it can appear in several different forms, depending on which part of the body the bacteria invade. There can be meningitis or septicaemia, or a combination of both.

Meningitis (bacterial form)

Inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord (the 'meninges'). Symptoms may include a severe headache, fever, fatigue, stiff or painful neck, sensitivity to light or convulsions.
There are many different forms of meningitis –- including fungal, viral and bacterial. It's only the more serious bacterial form which may be involved in meningococcal disease.
Meningococcal meningitis can result in permanent disabilities – such as deafness or brain injury – and can in some cases cause death.

Septicemia (blood poisoning)

This is the more dangerous and deadly of the two illnesses. It happens when the bacteria enter the bloodstream and multiply uncontrollably, damaging the walls of the blood vessels and causing bleeding into the skin (which results in the distinctive rash).
Symptoms may include fever, fatigue, vomiting, cold hands and feet, cold shivers, severe aches or pain in the muscles, joints, chest or abdomen, rapid breathing, diarrhoea – and, in the later stages, a pinprick or purple bruise-like rash (see The rash).
Septicemia can lead to death within hours, or permanent disabilities such as severe scarring due to skin grafts and amputation of the fingers, toes, arms or legs - due to lack of blood circulation in the extremities of the body.