Meningitis Misdiagnosis and Medical Malpractice

September 26, 2022 by James McHugh, Jr.
Meningitis Misdiagnosis

Every year, thousands of people develop meningitis, a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when there is inflammation of the membranes in the spine and brain. Meningitis can be caused by a variety of things – including infections and viruses – but an early diagnosis is the key to treating meningitis successfully. Time is of the essence with meningitis, so when a doctor misdiagnoses or fails to diagnose the condition, it could cost the patient their life.

Meningitis is an incredibly serious infection that affects thousands of Americans each year. Although anyone can develop meningitis, young people are particularly susceptible. Meningitis can be contracted when young people live in close quarters like in dormitories, sharing eating utensils and drinks, or by having close contact with an infected individual. In addition to young adults, children under the age of five are also highly susceptible to developing meningitis.

What Is Meningitis?

Meningitis is the swelling of the brain and spinal cord membranes. While meningitis can be caused by a variety of factors, bacteria commonly cause it. Infections that cause bacterial meningitis can cause death in as little as a few hours.

Bacterial meningitis is spread from person to person via an exchange of respiratory and throat secretions during close or lengthy contact. Eating contaminated food can also spread bacterial meningitis. As with other types of infections, some individuals can carry bacteria without experiencing symptoms themselves, so the source of the bacteria that causes meningitis is sometimes hard to determine.

Signs of Meningitis

While many symptoms of meningitis are generic, they can often be identified by how quickly they manifest. The signs of meningitis usually develop within three to seven days after exposure and can appear quickly or over the course of several days.

Common meningitis symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Rash
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Who Is Most at Risk?

While anyone can contract meningitis, some populations are at a higher risk than others. Newborn babies and pregnant women are particularly susceptible to bacterial meningitis and can suffer devastating injuries. For pregnant women, bacterial meningitis can cause miscarriages, stillbirth, and premature delivery, and the infection can spread to the unborn child.

Types of Meningitis

Meningitis is a rare but deadly infection that affects thousands of Americans each year. The infection causes an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, and getting immediate medical treatment is the key to preventing permanent damage or death. While most people are familiar with bacterial meningitis, there are six different types of meningitis:

  • Bacterial – Bacterial meningitis is incredibly serious, and death can occur in as little as a few hours. Bacteria like Streptococcus and Listeria can cause permanent damage to the brain, which can lead to hearing loss and learning disabilities, among other more serious complications, and even death.
  • Viral – Viruses like influenza, mumps, measles, West Nile virus, and chickenpox most commonly cause meningitis. While most people with viral meningitis get better on their own, some cases develop rapidly and require emergency medical treatment.
  • Fungal – In rare cases, meningitis can be caused by certain fungi. This occurs when a person inhales fungal spores that travel to the spinal cord. People with weakened immune systems are more likely to suffer from this type of meningitis.
  • Parasitic – Several varieties of parasites can cause meningitis. While these parasites usually tend to only infect animals, people can contract parasitic meningitis by ingesting contaminated or undercooked foods. Parasites can also be found in dirt, so children who play outside are particularly susceptible to contracting this type of meningitis.
  • Amebic – Free-living microscopic amoebas called Naegleria fowleri can cause a rare and life-threatening brain infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). The amoeba can be found in warm water and soil and is sometimes referred to as the “brain-eating amoeba.” Although the amoebas usually eat bacteria, when they enter the brain, they begin to eat brain tissue as well.
  • Non-infectious – Despite common belief, meningitis is not always spread from person to person or contracted outside of the body. Sometimes meningitis is caused by other factors such as cancer, Lupus, certain medications, brain surgery, and even head injuries.

Meningitis is often misdiagnosed as the flu, cold, or low-grade fever – especially in newborns. Without a blood test and/or spinal tap, meningitis can go undiagnosed and result in serious consequences for the patient.

Failure To Diagnose Meningitis

In its early stages, meningitis can present very generic symptoms. Patients can suffer from chills, a high fever, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. These symptoms are often confused with the common cold or stomach flu; however, doctors should always carefully examine each patient and should never rush to a diagnosis without considering all possible diagnoses.

While meningitis does present generic symptoms, it also displays some more specific symptoms. These symptoms include: opisthotonos, a muscle spasm that causes the patient to hold their head and neck arched backward, rapid breathing, decreased consciousness, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, and mental status changes. These symptoms are not associated with a cold or the flu and should be a red flag for doctors.

Meningitis can be easily diagnosed with medical tests like a spinal tap, blood culture, chest x-ray, CT scan of the head, and other laboratory tests. When a patient displays meningitis-like symptoms, doctors should order one or more of these tests to confirm a diagnosis.

When a doctor fails to diagnose meningitis, this can be a fatal medical mistake. Should the patient survive, a failure to diagnose can also cause permanent injuries like brain damage, hearing loss, or amputations. Without appropriate medical treatment, meningitis can even cause death.

Failure to Diagnose Meningitis Attorneys

When a doctor doesn’t take the symptoms of meningitis seriously, patients can be sent home without receiving the necessary care. Additionally, patients might only experience some of the common meningitis symptoms or may experience abnormal symptoms, but regardless of the symptoms, meningitis can be confirmed with a blood test or by testing cerebrospinal fluid.

If a doctor in Pennsylvania failed to diagnose meningitis, you may be able to file a medical malpractice claim. The medical malpractice attorneys at Lopez McHugh LLP can explain your legal options. If you or someone you know was diagnosed with meningitis and suspect there was a delay in diagnosis, contact one of the meningitis lawyers at Lopez McHugh LLP to discuss your case.

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