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Bacterial meningitis is a serious and potentially deadly disease of the central nervous system. Several types of bacteria can cause an infection that inflames the membranes – or meninges – around the brain and spinal cord. Common symptoms include fever, a severe headache, and stiff neck, often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, aching muscles, and lethargy.

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The consequences of bacterial meningitis can be severe – permanent brain damage, hearing loss, and death. This fast-acting illness can cause its worst affects within hours after a person contracts it. The disease is also highly contagious and is spread through coughing and sneezing.

Because of its severity, bacterial meningitis needs to be diagnosed and the right treatment given quickly. However, it can be misdiagnosed as a different form of meningitis or as a similar disease. In the case of a misdiagnosis, doctors might give patients the wrong medication or treatment, worsening their symptoms and possibly even leading to death.

To get a correct diagnosis, a patient must first tell the doctor all of the symptoms he or she is experiencing, so the doctor can suspect bacterial meningitis. As a test, the doctor will perform a spinal tap by inserting a needle into the lower back and drawing out a sample of spinal fluid. The bacteria in the fluid sample will be cultivated and analyzed to determine exactly what type is causing the patient’s illness.

In the meantime, if bacterial meningitis is suspected, the doctor should immediately begin empiric therapy. The doctor should give general antibiotics to start killing off the bacteria causing the infection. This gives a patient a head-start once the specific type of bacteria causing the illness has been determined.

At this stage, there is the danger that the doctor might misdiagnose bacterial meningitis as one of several different illnesses.

  • Viral meningitis: Most people recover from this less severe and more common form of meningitis. The symptoms for viral and bacterial meningitis are the same, and both versions are diagnosed through a spinal tap. However, viral meningitis doesn’t have a treatment, so patients misdiagnosed with it don’t get the needed medications.
  • Encephalitis: This disease is similar to bacterial meningitis, but the brain itself, not the membranes, is inflamed. These diseases have similar symptoms: fever, headache, stiffness, poor appetite, nausea, and lethargy. A doctor might incorrectly diagnose encephalitis and never do a spinal tap for bacterial meningitis.
  • Strep throat: This disease, caused by group A streptococcus bacteria, is occasionally misdiagnosed in place of bacterial meningitis. In addition to a sore throat, symptoms include nausea, headache, and fever. Fortunately, antibiotics are used to treat strep throat, as well as bacteria meningitis.

For patients to receive the best treatment and have the best chance of recovery, it’s imperative that their condition be diagnosed correctly. In the case of a misdiagnosis involving bacterial meningitis, the consequences can be severe – permanent brain damage and even death.