Which systemic findings on physical exam provide clues to the etiology of meningitis?

Updated: Jul 16, 2019
  • Author: Rodrigo Hasbun, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
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Systemic findings on physical examination may provide clues to the etiology of a patient’s meningitis. Morbilliform rash with pharyngitis and adenopathy may suggest a viral etiology (eg, Epstein-Barr virus [EBV], cytomegalovirus [CMV], adenovirus, or HIV). Macules and petechiae that rapidly evolve into purpura suggest meningococcemia (with or without meningitis). Vesicular lesions in a dermatomal distribution suggest VZV. Genital vesicles suggest HSV-2 meningitis.

Sinusitis or otitis suggests direct extension into the meninges, usually with S pneumoniae or, less often, H influenzae. Rhinorrhea or otorrhea suggests a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak from a basilar skull fracture, with meningitis most commonly caused by S pneumoniae.

Hepatosplenomegaly and lymphadenopathy suggest a systemic disease, including viral (eg, mononucleosislike syndrome in EBV, CMV, and HIV) and fungal (eg, disseminated histoplasmosis). The presence of a heart murmur suggests infective endocarditis with secondary bacterial seeding of the meninges.

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