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Meningococcal Meningitis Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Francisco de Assis Aquino Gondim, MD, MSc, PhD, FAAN; Chief Editor: Niranjan N Singh, MD, DM  more...
Updated: Jun 15, 2016


Meningococcal meningitis is characterized by acute onset of intense headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, photophobia, and stiff neck. Elderly patients are prone to have an altered mental state and a prolonged course with fever.

Lethargy or drowsiness in patients frequently is reported. Stupor or coma is less common. If coma is present, the prognosis is poor.

Patients also may complain of skin rash, which usually points to disease progression.

The clinical pattern of bacterial meningitis is quite different in young children. Bacterial meningitis in these patients usually presents as a subacute infection that progresses over several days.

Projectile vomiting may occur in children.

Seizures occur in 40% of children with meningitis, typically during the first few days. The majority of seizures have a focal onset.

In infants, the illness may have an insidious onset; stiff neck may be absent. In children, even when the combination of convulsive status epilepticus and fever is present, the classic signs and symptoms of acute bacterial meningitis may not be present.[3]

The Waterhouse-Friderichsen syndrome may develop in 10-20% of children with meningococcal infection. This syndrome is characterized by large petechial hemorrhages in the skin and mucous membranes, fever, septic shock, and DIC.


Physical Examination

Neurologic signs of meningococcal meningitis include nuchal rigidity (eg, Kernig sign, Brudzinski sign), lethargy, delirium, coma, and convulsions.

Irritability is a common presenting feature in children.

However, in a 2008 published cohort study from Netherlands (the Meningitis Cohort Study), conducted in adult patients with meningococcal meningitis, only 70% of the patients had the classic triad of fever, neck stiffness, and change in mental status. If the presence of rash was added, 89% of the patients had 2 of the 4 features.[9]

Patients older than 30 years were noted to have petechiae (62%) less frequently than younger patients (81%).

A more severe, but less common form of meningococcal disease, is meningococcal septicemia, which is characterized by rapid circulatory collapse and a hemorrhagic rash.

A petechial or purpuric rash usually is found on the trunk, legs, mucous membranes, and conjunctivae. Occasionally, it is on the palms and soles. The rash may progress to purpura fulminans, when it usually is associated with multiorgan failure (ie, Waterhouse-Friderichsen syndrome). The petechial rash may be difficult to recognize in dark-skinned patients.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Francisco de Assis Aquino Gondim, MD, MSc, PhD, FAAN Professor Adjunto of Neurology and Clinical Skills, Department of Internal Medicine, Universidade Federal do Ceará, Brazil

Francisco de Assis Aquino Gondim, MD, MSc, PhD, FAAN is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine, International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society

Disclosure: Received travel grants from for: Aché, Biogen, Genzyme, Ipsen, Novartis.


Manish K Singh, MD Assistant Professor, Department of Neurology, Teaching Faculty for Pain Management and Neurology Residency Program, Hahnemann University Hospital, Drexel College of Medicine; Medical Director, Neurology and Pain Management, Jersey Institute of Neuroscience

Manish K Singh, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Academy of Pain Medicine, American Headache Society, American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, American Medical Association, American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Florian P Thomas, MD, PhD, Drmed, MA, MS Director, National MS Society Multiple Sclerosis Center; Professor and Director, Clinical Research Unit, Department of Neurology, Adjunct Professor of Physical Therapy, Associate Professor, Institute for Molecular Virology, St Louis University School of Medicine; Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine

Florian P Thomas, MD, PhD, Drmed, MA, MS is a member of the following medical societies: Academy of Spinal Cord Injury Professionals, American Academy of Neurology, American Neurological Association, Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Sigma Xi

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Niranjan N Singh, MD, DM Associate Professor of Neurology, University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine

Niranjan N Singh, MD, DM is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine, American Headache Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Norman C Reynolds, Jr, MD Neurologist, Veterans Affairs Medical Center of Milwaukee; Clinical Professor, Medical College of Wisconsin

Norman C Reynolds, Jr, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, Association of Military Surgeons of the US, International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society, Sigma Xi, Society for Neuroscience

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


The authors and editors of Medscape Reference gratefully acknowledge the contributions of previous author Sidney E Croul, MD, to the development and writing of the source article.

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Head CT demonstrates enlargement of the temporal horns indicating increased intracranial pressure (horizontal open large arrow). The closed arrowhead shows small intracerebral hemorrhage foci on the right temporal lobe, and the curved arrow shows the effect of increased intracranial pressure on the cerebellum.
Head CT shows small intracerebral hemorrhage foci (vertical closed arrow). Basal ganglia can also not be visualized because of diffuse edema (oblique closed arrow). The black arrow head on the left shows soft tissue edema.
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