Meningococcal Meningitis Treatment & Management

Updated: Nov 06, 2023
  • 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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Approach Considerations

Meningococcal disease is potentially fatal and always should be viewed as a medical emergency. Admission to a hospital is necessary. To prevent serious neurologic morbidity and death, prompt institution of antibiotic therapy is essential when the diagnosis of bacterial meningitis is suspected.

Surgical interventions may be necessary for the management of complications, such as subdural effusions, empyema, and hydrocephalus.


Pharmacologic Care

Institute antimicrobial therapy as soon as possible after the lumbar puncture is performed.

Long delays may occur in the emergency department before initiation of antibiotics in patients with suspected bacterial meningitis. In general, these delays appear to be physician generated and, to a great extent, potentially avoidable. [14]

A study has suggested that, at least in children, CSF sterilization may occur more rapidly after initiation of parenteral antibiotics than previously suggested, with complete sterilization of meningococcus within 2 hours and the beginning of sterilization of pneumococcus by 4 hours.

Standard empirical therapy

At presentation, meningitis due to N meningitidis may be impossible to differentiate from other types of meningitis. Thus, empirical treatment with an antibiotic with effective CNS penetration should be based on age and underlying disease status, since delay in treatment is associated with adverse clinical outcome.

Initial empirical therapy until the etiology is established should include dexamethasone, a third-generation cephalosporin (eg, ceftriaxone, cefotaxime), and vancomycin. Acyclovir should be considered according to the results of the initial cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) evaluation. Doxycycline should also be added during tick season in endemic areas. A 7-day course of intravenous ceftriaxone or penicillin is adequate for uncomplicated meningococcal meningitis.

If imaging studies are indicated before lumbar puncture, draw blood for culture and begin administration of empiric antibiotics. Administration of empiric antibiotics is unlikely to decrease diagnostic sensitivity if CSF is tested for bacterial antigens early in the course of the illness.

Treatment following diagnosis

Once an accurate diagnosis of meningococcal meningitis is established, appropriate changes can be made. Currently, a third-generation cephalosporin (ceftriaxone or cefotaxime) is the drug of choice for the treatment of meningococcal meningitis and septicemia. Penicillin G, ampicillin, chloramphenicol, fluoroquinolone, and aztreonam are alternatives therapies (IDSA guidelines).

The use of dexamethasone in the management of bacterial meningitis in adults remains controversial. It may be used in children, especially in those with meningitis caused by Haemophilus influenzae. In adults with suspected bacterial meningitis, especially in high-risk cases, the adjunctive use of dexamethasone may be beneficial.



Person-to-person transmission can be interrupted by chemoprophylaxis, which eradicates the asymptomatic nasopharyngeal carrier state.

Deterrence and prevention of meningococcal meningitis can be achieved by either immunoprophylaxis or chemoprophylaxis. Rifampin, quinolones, and ceftriaxone are the antimicrobials that are used to eradicate meningococci from the nasopharynx.


Vaccination is used for close contacts of patients with meningococcal disease due to A, C, Y, or W135 serogroups, to prevent secondary cases. [15] Current meningococcal vaccines are indicated for active immunization to prevent invasive meningococcal disease caused by Neisseria meningitidis

In October 2023, the FDA approved the first pentavalent meningococcal vaccine for prevention of most common serogroups (ie, A, B, C, W, Y) causing meningococcal disease. Approval was based on results from an active-controlled, observer-blinded trial among healthy individuals aged 10-24 years (N = 2341). Participants were randomly assigned to receive either 2 doses of MenABCWY or licensed meningococcal vaccines (2 doses of [Trumenba] plus 1 dose of [Menveo]). 

The study showed that 2 doses of MenABCWY demonstrated noninferiority for all 5 serogroups (serogroups A, B, C, W and Y) compared with 2 doses of Trumenba and 1 dose of Menveo. Noninferiority was also demonstrated for serogroups A, C, W and Y with a single dose of MenABCWY compared with 1 dose of Menveo (secondary endpoint). [16]

In October 2014, the FDA approved the first meningococcal vaccine for serogroup B (Trumenba) under the breakthrough therapy designation and accelerated approval regulatory pathways. Recent outbreaks of serogroup B meningococcal disease on a few college campuses have heightened concerns for this potentially deadly disease.

Approval was based on 3 randomized trials conducted in the United States and Europe in about 2800 adolescents. Among participants who were given 3 doses of the vaccine, 82% developed antibodies against 4 different N meningitidis serogroup B strains representative of those that cause serogroup B meningococcal disease in the United States compared with less than 1% before vaccination. [17]

In January 2015, a second meningococcal serogroup B vaccine was approved (Bexsero). [18]

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012, approximately 500 cases of meningococcal disease were reported; of those, 160 resulted from serogroup B.

Epidemics usually spread rapidly to a peak within weeks but may last for several months in the absence of vaccination.

Mass immunization of selected communities, using polyvalent A and C polysaccharide vaccine, is a useful control measure.

Vaccines against meningococcus A, C, W, and Y are available. ACIP guidelines include a recommendation for primary immunization for children aged 11-12 years, with a booster dose at age 16 years. [19] The vaccine is also recommended for adults and children at high risk (aged 2 months or older). [20, 21] High-risk persons include military recruits, contacts to index cases, individuals travelling to areas of high incidence or areas affected by outbreaks, patients with asplenia, adolescents with HIV infection, and persons with terminal complement disorders. Serogroup B vaccine is indicated as a 3-dose series in adolescents and young adults aged 10 through 25 years. College students also benefit from vaccination.


In general, chemoprophylaxis is not recommended during epidemics because of multiple sources of exposure and prolonged risk of exposure. Logistic problems and high cost also make this an impractical alternative. [22]

Chemoprophylaxis can be considered for people in close contact with patients in an endemic situation. Ciprofloxacin 500 mg in a single dose is probably the easiest option in adults. Children could receive either a single IM injection of ceftriaxone or 4 oral doses of rifampin over 2 days, according to body weight.

Antimicrobials commonly used for chemoprophylaxis are rifampin, ciprofloxacin, ceftriaxone, minocycline, and spiramycin.

When oral rifampin (4 doses in 2 d) was compared with a single IM dose of ceftriaxone for prophylaxis, follow-up cultures indicated that ceftriaxone was significantly more effective. Ceftriaxone may provide an effective alternative to rifampin for prophylaxis in people in close contact with patients with meningococcal meningitis. [23]

Oily chloramphenicol may be the drug of choice in areas with limited health facilities, because a single dose of the long-acting form has been shown to be effective.

Sometimes, an alternative to chemoprophylaxis may be protective chemotherapy that can prevent the development of meningitis in individuals incubating the disease.


Additional Considerations


Complete appropriate antimicrobial therapy course. Observe the patient for any complications or neurological sequelae.


Advise any household contacts and close respiratory contacts that chemoprophylaxis agents are available to eliminate the carrier state and prevent the spread of infection. [8]

Observe patients for any late complication or neurologic sequelae.