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Woman with thermometer in her mouth, holding her head

What is invasive meningococcal disease?

Invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) is a serious infection caused by the bacteria, Neisseria meningitidis.  Up to 10% of the population carry the bacteria at the back of their throat or nose without ever getting sick.  In rare cases, IMD can cause an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) and/or an infection of the bloodstream (septicemia).

What are the symptoms of IMD?

Symptoms usually occur 2 to 10 days after being exposed to the bacteria and may include:

  • Sudden fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to lights
  • Muscle pain
  • Drowsiness
  • Rash
  • Infants may seem more irritable and fussy than usual

If you or your child develops these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.  Early diagnosis and treatment is important to prevent complications.

How does IMD spread?

IMD is spread through the saliva (spit) of an infected person when sharing items like:

  • Water bottles
  • Lipstick
  • Cigarettes
  • Toothbrushes
  • Cups/utensils
  • Musical instruments
  • Kissing on the mouth

The bacteria can also spread through the air when infected people cough, sneeze, or talk.

How long is it contagious?

It is contagious for 7 days before the first symptom appears and until 24 hours after the start of antibiotics.

How is IMD treated?

Treatment includes antibiotics, supportive care for the symptoms and fluids, usually in a hospital setting.

What if I have been exposed to someone who has IMD?

Close contacts of someone who is sick with IMD are at a higher risk of getting sick themselves.  People most at risk:

  • live in the same house
  • sleep in the same room
  • share items that have been in contact with infected saliva
  • are children/staff in daycare

If you are a close contact, talk to your health care provider for possible treatment with antibiotics.

How is IMD prevented?

Meningococcal vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from IMD.  The vaccine is included in the routine vaccination schedule and is available free to Ontario residents who qualify.  It is important for everyone to be up-to-date on all routine immunizations.

Other ways to prevent infection include the following:

  • Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap.
  • Cough and sneeze into tissues and sleeves.
  • Avoid sharing objects with persons who are sick.

References

  • Heymann, D.L. (2015). Control of communicable diseases manual, 20th edition. Washington, DC: APHA Press.
  • Ontario. Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. (2014). Infectious diseases protocol, Appendix A: Disease-specific chapters, Chapter: Meningococcal disease, invasive. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.
  • Ontario. Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. (2014). Infectious diseases protocol, Appendix B: Provincial case definitions for reportable diseases, Disease: Meningococcal disease, invasive. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.