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Cerebrospinal fluid culture

Definition

A cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) culture is a laboratory test to look for bacteria, fungi, and viruses in the normally clear fluid that moves in the space around the spinal cord.

Alternative Names

Culture - CSF; Spinal fluid culture; CSF culture

How the test is performed

A sample of CSF is needed. This is usually done with a lumbar puncture. For information on how this procedure is performed, see spinal tap.

The sample is sent to the laboratory, where it is placed in a special dish (called a culture medium). The laboratory personnel watch to see if bacteria, fungi, or viruses grow in the dish. Growth means there is an infection.

How to prepare for the test

For information on how to prepare for the procedure to obtain the CSF sample, see spinal tap.

How the test will feel

For information on how it will feel to have a sample of CSF fluid removed, see spinal tap.

Why the test is performed

Your doctor may order this test if you have signs of an infection that affects the brain or nervous system. The test will help identify what is causing the infection. This will help your doctor decide on the best treatment.

Normal Values

A normal result means no bacteria, viruses, or fungi grew in the laboratory dish. This is called a negative result.

What abnormal results mean

If bacteria are present, you may have bacterial meningitis. Other possible infections include tuberculosis and fungal infections. Some bacteria or viruses can also be detected using special tests.

Finding bacteria does not necessarily mean the infection is contagious, unless it is meningococcal meningitis.

See also:

What the risks are

A laboratory culture poses no risk to you. For risks from the procedure done to get a CSF sample, see spinal tap.

References

Griggs RC, Jozefowicz RF, Aminoff MJ. Approach to the patient with neurologic disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2011:chap 403.

Swartz MN, Nath A. Meningitis: bacterial, viral, and other. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2011:chap 420.


Review Date: 9/2/2012
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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