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Failure to Diagnose Meningitis

You wake up one morning with an excruciating headache unlike anything you’ve felt before. Maybe you also feel sick to your stomach and have a fever. You know something you’re very sick, and you decide to go to an emergency room or urgent care for help. They perform a physical examination, tell you that you have the flu, and send you back home with instructions to get bed rest and to drink fluids. When your symptoms don’t get any better, you seek help somewhere else and find out that you have meningitis.

Meningitis is a painful illness that can have serious, lifelong complications if left untreated. The disease can have any number of underlying causes, and getting the right diagnosis is the key to making sure you get the right treatment. We put our trust in health providers to have the knowledge and experience to make the right diagnoses. When they get it wrong, the consequences can be tragic.

If you or a family member has experienced complications and accrued medical expenses because of a health provider’s failure to diagnose meningitis, you may have a claim for medical malpractice. An experienced medical malpractice attorney can go over the circumstances of your case and discuss with you the possibility of negotiating an insurance settlement or filing a malpractice lawsuit.

What is Meningitis?

The brain and spinal cord are covered in protective membranes known as meninges. When the meninges become inflamed, that’s a condition called meningitis. Meningitis can be caused by any number of factors, and can vary in severity depending on the cause. The CDC describes five categories of meningitis:

  • Bacterial Meningitis — This is a form of meningitis when a bacterial infection results in inflammation of the meninges. Bacterial meningitis can be caused by any number of bacterial pathogens. Common ones include Haemophilus influenza, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Listeria monocytogenes, and Neisseria meningitidis. Bacterial meningitis can be very serious and even life threatening if not properly treated with antibiotics.
  • Viral Meningitis — This form of meningitis is caused by a virus, and usually will clear up on its own given time. However, people with weaker immune systems such as infants, the elderly, or people with chronic health issues, can be at risk for very serious infections. Common viral infections that can lead to meningitis include mumps, flu, chicken pox, herpes, measles, and viruses spread by insects such as mosquitoes.
  • Fungal Meningitis — This form of meningitis is caused by the spread of fungus through the blood to the spinal cord, and is rare. Usually the infection starts when someone breathes in fungal spores, which may be present in bird or bat droppings and then contaminate surrounding soil. People with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to illness. The most common fungus associated with fungal meningitis is Cryptococcus, although other types of fungus including Histoplasma, Blastomyces, and Coccidioides also may cause the disease.
  • Parasitic Meningitis — This form of meningitis is very rare and is caused when the waterborne amoeba Naegleria fowleri enters the nose, usually when someone is swimming or diving in warm, fresh water. The amoeba travels to the brain and causes an infection. This form of meningitis is usually fatal.
  • Non-Infectious Meningitis — This encompasses a number of potential causes of meningitis that can include cancer, head injury, lupus, or certain drugs.

How is Meningitis Diagnosed?

According to the Mayo Clinic, common meningitis symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Severe headache
  • Neck stiffness
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Seizures
  • Sleepiness
  • Light sensitivity
  • Loss of appetite or thirst
  • Skin rash

These symptoms overlap with other common illnesses, including the flu, so tests are needed to diagnose meningitis as the cause. Tests performed to diagnose meningitis may include spinal tap and analysis of cerebrospinal fluid, blood test, chest x-ray, or CT scan.

Consequences of A Missed Diagnosis

Because there are so many potential causes of meningitis, it’s crucial for a physician to identify the correct cause. Treatments will vary depending upon what caused the meningitis. For example, bacterial meningitis can be treated by antibiotics, but antibiotics only work to kill bacteria and won’t have any effect on viruses or fungi that might have caused meningitis.

If a health provider fails to order the right tests, or to properly read test results, the underlying cause of meningitis might be missed. In some cases, the provider might render a different diagnosis altogether, such as influenza.

You can’t get the right treatment without the right diagnosis, and if meningitis isn’t properly treated, complications can include brain damage, build-up of fluid in the brain, hearing loss, and seizures. Some of these complications may result in permanent impairments or disabilities and affect your ability to work, enjoy hobbies, or perform normal household tasks. Severe cases of meningitis left untreated can result in death. An experienced Chicago personal injury lawyer can help determine if you have a medical malpractice claim.