understanding meningitis causes and complications ii

Last week, we began providing some background information on meningitis, a potentially serious condition that can result in life-threatening complications and permanent neurological damage the longer it goes untreated.

In today’s post, we’ll take a closer look at some of the diagnostic tests available to physicians when confronted with a possible case of meningitis.

According to experts, when a patient exhibits some of the telltale signs of meningitis –high fever, severe headache, upset stomach, stiff neck — it’s likely that a physician will first want to conduct a physical exam with particular emphasis being placed on the ears, throat, head and skin along the spine to detect possible signs of infection.

In the event the treating physician suspects meningitis, they have a variety of tools at their disposal to confirm this diagnosis.

Blood cultures

The treating physician can order a blood sample, which will be sent to a laboratory for thorough analysis. Here, the lab personnel can prepare a slide using the blood sample and a certain stain, and look for traces of bacteria. They can also place some of the sample in a Petri dish and monitor it for traces of growing microorganisms (i.e., bacteria).

Imaging tests

The treating physician can order either an X-ray or CT scan if meningitis is suspected. While this may seem curious given the possible bacterial, viral or fungal nature of the infection, both of these tests can enable the physician to confirm swelling/inflammation in the head, sinuses or chest, and identify other possible infection sites.

Spinal tap

The treating physician can order a spinal tap, universally known as the best diagnostic tool when it comes to meningitis. During this procedure, a small sample of cerebrospinal fluid is collected and sent to the lab where technicians will examine it for certain meningitis markers, including an increased white blood cell count, increased presence of proteins and low glucose levels.

Given the multitude of options available to physicians in confirming a diagnosis of meningitis, it seems almost impossible that misdiagnoses or failures to diagnosis could occur. Yet they do with alarming regularity.

In our next post on this topic, we’ll discuss the treatment that is typically administered following a diagnosis of meningitis.

Source: The Mayo Clinic, “Diseases and conditions: Meningitis,” Accessed March 13, 2014

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