Meningococcal Meningitis Clinical Presentation

Updated: Jul 16, 2018
  • Author: Francisco de Assis Aquino Gondim, MD, PhD, MSc, FAAN; Chief Editor: Niranjan N Singh, MBBS, MD, DM, FAHS, FAANEM  more...
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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.