Meningitis Center

Meningitis Diagnosis

If you suspect or know that you have been developing symptoms of meningitis, contact your doctor immediately.  Left untreated, meningitis may lead to death, or serious damage to organs.  If you contact your doctor, you may be scheduled for an appointment, or may be told to go to an emergency room.  In both situations, doctors may ask for your medical history, a physical exam, and order additional tests.  

Medical examinations
To help your doctor, write down any symptoms that you are experiencing, and circumstances that are associated with meningitis (e.g. contact with animals; recent cold, ear, or sinus infections; whether or not you live in a college dormitory or have a child in daycare; your vaccination history; a list of all medication that you have been taking; if you have a girlfriend or boyfriend who has meningitis; etc.).  Your doctor may order one of several tests to determine if you have meningitis.  These include:

Blood tests (hemoculture) -  These tests may determine bacterial strains that have entered the blood stream, and may be causing bacterial meningitis.

DNA tests - Called a polymerase chain reaction analysis (PCR), this DNA test looks for certain causes of meningitis.

Imaging tests - Computerized tomography (CT scans)  or x-rays look for inflammation in the chest, sinuses, skull, and other areas of the body associated with meningitis.  

Spinal tap - Also known as a lumbar puncture.  During this procedure, your cerebrospinal fluid is collected, and analyzed for low sugar, increased protein, and increased white blood cells.  These are indicative of meningitis.  Additionally, this test may allow the doctor to culture the specific type of bacterial strain that may be causing the meningitis, allowing for better treatment.  This test may take a relatively long period of time:  up to one week.  However, a new test--Xpert EV test--allows results in less than 3 hours for 90% of viral meningitis cases.  A negative test may indicate bacterial meningitis, while a positive test indicates viral meningitis. 

Throat culture - This test can identify the bacterial strain causing headache, neck pain, and throat pain, but does not determine what bacteria may be in your cerebrospinal fluid.

If your family physician or pediatrician determines that you do not need immediate emergency attention, get plenty of rest, stay home from work or socializing, drink fluids, and do not take aspirin (which may aggravate symptoms).  Treatments for a person's specific type of meningitis always depend on the cause of the meningitis.  Your doctor can begin treatment once s/he understands the cause.  To learn more about available treatments and meningitis vaccine, read here for more information.


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