CT Scans and Meningitis

Meningitis is either a bacteria or virus that infects the membranes (meninges) surrounding your brain and spinal cord. Many cases of meningitis are not life-threatening. However, the condition can quickly turn more serious and require medical attention-especially if it is bacterial.

Meningitis is particularly common in college dorms due to the communal living, shared spaces, and unhygienic practices.

According to a 2000 CDC study, college freshmen are seven times more likely to get meningitis than other college students. Meningitis occurred 9 to 23 times more frequently in students living in dormitories over those residing in other accommodations.

Symptoms of meningitis include:

  • Sudden high fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Severe headache
  • Headache with nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Seizures
  • Sleepiness or difficulty waking
  • Sensitivity to light
  • No appetite or thirst
  • Skin rash (sometimes, such as in meningococcal meningitis)

Bacterial meningitis can be fatal if not treated within a few days. For diagnosing and developing a treatment plan, doctors often order a CT scan.

If your doctor suspects you have any strand of meningitis, they will most likely prescribe antibiotics prior to order the CT scan. The CT scan is a valuable tool in diagnosing meningitis.

The contrast dye that is injected during the test can highlight brain, skull, and sinus inflammation- all complications and signs of meningitis.

When meningitis is suspected, CT scans can also other conditions that can further complicate meningitis:

  • Ruptured disks
  • Blood clots
  • Irregularities of bones or blood vessels
  • Some types brain tumors
  • Brain damage caused by a head injury

Most people with meningitis have a CT scan before their lumbar puncture, a test used to diagnose meningitis by studying a sample of spinal fluid.

“We do this to ensure that there isn’t a large, space-occupying lesion, like a tumor, causing increased pressure,” said Jason T. Lerner, MD, assistant clinical professor at the Mattel Children’s Hospital at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If there is such a lesion, doing a lumbar puncture can have severe consequences, including herniation [protruding tissue] of part of the brain.”

CT scans are used to help diagnose meningitis in patients with certain conditions where a lumbar puncture would not be possible. Such conditions include:

  • A suppressed immune system
  • Water on the brain (hydrocephalus)
  • Shunts
  • Head trauma
  • Increased intracranial pressure
  • Focal neurologic signs (signs of impairment of certain neurologic activities, such as perception and behavior)


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