Meningitis must be diagnosed by a medical professional. Typically, this is done either through blood work or through a spinal tap, where the doctor will remove cerebrospinal fluid and have it tested by a lab. Non-infectious forms of meningitis could be diagnosed by looking for pockets of pus or other abnormalities through an ultrasound or similar procedure.
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Honor Society of Nursing (STTI) answered
Diagnosis of meningitis is based on a medical history, a physical exam and tests.
Your doctor will almost always do a lumbar puncture. This is done by inserting a long, thin needle into the spinal canal. The doctor uses the needle to collect samples of spinal fluid to check for bacteria and viruses.
Other tests that may be done include:
- Complete blood count, to check for signs of infection.
- Blood culture, to check for infections.
- Urine test, to check for infection in the urinary tract.
- Chest X-ray, to check for lung infections.
- Biopsy of a skin rash.
- CT scan or MRI, to look for swelling of brain tissue or for complications such as brain damage.
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History and physical: Questions about the history of the illness and a physical examination help determine the likelihood of meningitis. During the exam, a doctor may check for signs of infection around the head, ears, throat, and the skin along the spine.
Throat culture: A throat culture can find and identify the bacteria causing throat pain, neck pain, and headache, but cannot determine what pathogens may be in the spinal fluid.
Lumbar puncture: A lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, is the sampling of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. A lumbar puncture is the primary test for meningitis and is important for the critical distinction between a bacterial or viral cause. A small needle is inserted into the lower back under sterile conditions and CSF is withdrawn. There may be some pain involved, depending on the individual. The CSF may show the presence of bacteria, indicating bacterial infection. White blood cells in the CSF may be related to bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis (no bacteria would be seen in this case), or fungal meningitis. The CSF also is cultured to look for growth of organisms in order to identify them.
Blood tests may show an increased white blood cell count, indicating infection. Other tests may be suggested by a doctor depending on the individual situation.
Polymerase chain reaction analysis: A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a DNA-based test that uses amplification to check for the presence of certain causes of meningitis. A polymerase chain reaction test can be used if a doctor suspects meningitis.
Imaging: X-rays, ultrasounds, and computerized tomography (CT) scans of the chest, skull, or sinuses may reveal swelling or inflammation. These tests can also help a doctor look for infection in other areas of the body or infections associated with meningitis.
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