Saturday, August 16, 2008

Essentials of Diagnosis

• Signs and symptoms suggestive of the aseptic meningitis syndrome include fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting.

• CSF pleocytosis is present.

• Gram's stains as well as routine bacterial and fungal cultures are negative.

Some patients who present with the signs and symptoms of meningitis have CSF pleocytosis, but they also have negative Gram stains and routine bacterial cultures of the CSF, and they have no other evidence (such as positive blood cultures) to indicate the etiology of the meningeal inflammation. In considering the management of such patients, it is helpful to designate them as having the aseptic meningitis syndrome rather than "viral meningitis" because some of these patients have proven to have infectious processes that require antimicrobial therapy (Table 7-7), which is not indicated for most cases of viral meningitis.

Diagnosis and management of the aseptic meningitis syndrome and optimal care of the patient is made more difficult if a patient with the aseptic meningitis syndrome is casually diagnosed as having viral meningitis, with a resulting cessation of attempts to make an etiologic diagnosis or to determine the cause of the meningeal inflammation.

General Considerations

Although viral infection is the most frequent cause of aseptic meningitis syndrome, there are many antimicrobial-requiring causes of the syndrome (see Table 7-7). Arthropod-borne viruses (arboviruses) cause disease more often in late summer and early fall; enterovirus disease follows a similar seasonal pattern, with echoviruses and coxsackieviruses predominating. Mumps virus meningitis occurs more often in late winter and early spring. Meningitis due to herpes simplex virus may occur at any time, often in association with a first episode of genital herpes infection.

Clinical Findings

In general, patients with aseptic meningitis syndrome are alert and complain of severe headache, primarily when they turn their eyes to one side or the other or flex their necks. They often seek a dark, quiet room. They rarely become confused or obtunded; so, if confusion or obtundation is evident, bacterial meningitis becomes much more likely. Nevertheless, patients in the early stages of bacterial meningitis can look exactly like those with the aseptic meningitis syndrome.

To determine the cause of the aseptic meningitis syndrome in a particular patient, it is helpful to consider three characteristics of the patient's illness: (1) the pace of development of the illness, (2) the presence or absence of focal or lateralizing neurologic findings, and (3) the presence or absence of confusion.

1. The Pace of Development of the Illness—Depending on the underlying disease and the specific causative microorganism, the development of signs and symptoms of meningeal inflammation may be relatively slow (taking weeks to months) or rather rapid (taking hours to days). Tuberculous and fungal meningitis, as well as syphilitic meningitis and meningeal inflammation caused by bacterial endocarditis, generally develop at a slower pace, whereas pyogenic bacterial meningitis and viral meningitis develop more rapidly (over hours to days). Tuberculous meningitis and fungal meningitis are most expeditiously diagnosed if consultation with a microbiology laboratory is sought, so that optimal media and genetic probing techniques can be used to test the CSF. Similarly, the most incisive serologic tests for syphilis should be used in consultation with an immunology laboratory if syphilis appears to be a likely etiologic agent. Syphilitic meningitis develops more often during the secondary or tertiary stages of the disease and presents with seizures in ~ 18% of patients. Thus, in patients with signs and symptoms suggestive of meningitis, especially seizures, syphilitic meningitis should be considered as part of the differential diagnosis, and appropriate serologic tests for syphilis should be performed on the serum and CSF.

2. The Presence or Absence of Focal or Lateralizing Neurologic and Other Findings—Whereas acute bacterial meningitis may cause cranial nerve abnormalities such as deafness or ophthalmoplegias, viral meningitis seldom causes such neurologic dysfunction. Similarly, brain abscesses, even if they have not ruptured into the subarachnoid space, may cause CSF pleocytosis in the absence of detectable bacteria in the CSF. Brain abscesses are more likely than bacterial or viral meningitis to cause focal neurological findings such as hemiparesis or aphasia. Spinal epidural abscesses, which may cause fever, CSF pleocytosis, and focal neurologic deficits, are usually accompanied by pain and percussion tenderness over the spine. With both brain abscesses and spinal epidural abscesses, CT scans with enhancement or MRI scans may be required to determine the cause of the culture-negative meningeal inflammation.

3. The Presence or Absence of Confusion—In general, patients with aseptic meningitis syndrome as a result of viral meningitis are alert; therefore, if confusion or obtundation is evident, a bacterial etiology or some other nonviral etiology of the meningeal inflammation is more likely.

A. Signs and Symptoms. Signs and symptoms suggestive of the aseptic meningitis syndrome depend on its underlying etiology, but often include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, and neck stiffness.

B. Laboratory Findings. CSF pleocytosis is present. Gram stain and routine cultures are negative. The CSF glucose, protein, leukocyte count, and differential can be helpful in determining the cause of the syndrome (see Table 7-4).

C. Imaging. A number of the antimicrobial-requiring causes of aseptic meningitis syndrome require imaging studies to identify the lesion for diagnosis, optimal antimicrobial therapy, and, if indicated, surgical drainage. Whereas the CSF in true viral aseptic meningitis has a lymphocytic pleocytosis, abscesslike processes, including contiguous sinusitis, often have predominantly polymorphonuclear leukocyte pleocytosis of the CSF. Thus, the presence of the aseptic meningitis syndrome plus clinical signs suggesting the presence of a mass lesion, especially if there is polymorphonuclear pleocytosis of the CSF, should prompt imaging studies of the areas likely to be involved. A CT scan may suffice if acute intracranial hemorrhage is a possibility or if the patient cannot remain motionless in an MRI scanner; otherwise, MRI scans are the preferred imaging modality. Brain abscesses may not be visualized on CT scans unless contrast enhancement is used (Figure 7-1). Thus, contrast enhancement should be used with CT scans that are performed because a brain abscess is in the differential diagnosis. If a brain abscess is a possibility, a CT scan should not be considered to be completed unless it was done with contrast enhancement.

Differential Diagnosis

There are a substantial number of causes of aseptic meningitis syndrome, which can be life-threatening if not treated appropriately, sometimes with antimicrobial agents (see Table 7-7). The antimicrobial-requiring causes of aseptic meningitis syndrome should be excluded before embarking on an extensive workup of the non-antimicrobial-requiring causes (Table 7-8).

Some antibiotics and other pharmaceutical products can induce aseptic meningitis syndrome (Table 7-9). Whereas infectious causes of the meningitis should be excluded first, the drugs that cause meningitis are usually not critical, and substitutions of drugs that do not cause meningitis can easily be made. In a patient with meningitis who is having seizures, treatment with phenytoin usually suffices when intravenous administration is necessary; carbamazepine may be used when oral administration is possible, keeping in mind that it rarely may produce an aseptic meningitis syndrome.

To avoid inducing drug-related meningitis, avoid antimicrobial treatment of respiratory tract infections (eg, sinusitis and pneumonia) with oral antibiotics that do not have optimal activity against pneumococci and other streptococci. A substantial number of patients have acquired fatal pneumococcal sepsis and meningitis while taking such antibiotics. For instance, life-threatening pneumococcal and other streptococcal infections, including meningitis, have complicated therapy with the following oral antimicrobial agents: ciprofloxacin (Lee et al, 1991; Righter, 1990) and cefixime (Ottolini et al, 1991).


The complications of aseptic meningitis syndrome depend on its etiology. If caused by a pharmaceutical product such as ibuprofen, cessation of the inciting drug usually results in disappearance of the meningitis without complications. On the other hand, aseptic meningitis syndrome resulting from a brain abscess may be fatal if the brain abscess is not identified and treated properly, so that it is allowed to rupture into the CSF space.


As with bacterial meningitis, the antimicrobial therapy should be specifically targeted toward the most likely organism to cause the aseptic meningitis syndrome. For instance, the most likely organism to cause an epidural abscess is S aureus, whereas multiple brain abscesses associated with endocarditis are likely to be caused by the same organism that is infecting the heart valves.

In some patients, the best therapy for aseptic meningitis syndrome may be stopping a drug that is causing the meningitis. For instance, in a patient with AIDS who develops aseptic meningitis syndrome while receiving sulfa-trimethoprim prophylaxis against Pneumocystis carinii infections, it would be reasonable, after excluding infectious causes of the aseptic meningitis syndrome, to change the prophylaxis from sulfa-trimethoprim, which can cause an aseptic meningitis syndrome (see Table 7-9), to pentamidine for Pneumocystis prophylaxis. Antiviral therapy is not indicated for most cases of viral meningitis.


The prognosis of aseptic meningitis syndrome is the same as that of its underlying cause. For instance, neoplastic meningitis as the cause of aseptic meningitis syndrome has a dire prognosis, whereas drug-induced aseptic meningitis syndrome and virus-caused aseptic meningitis syndrome have an excellent prognosis.

Prevention & Control

Aseptic meningitis syndrome has such diverse causes that there is no single means of prevention and control. For instance, syphilis-related aseptic meningitis syndrome might be prevented by the use of condoms, and Lyme disease-related aseptic meningitis syndrome might be prevented by using an insect repellent that protects against the Ixodes tick vector.


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