What is a
cerebrospinal fluid culture?
The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord.
Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is a clear, colorless liquid that surrounds and
protects the CNS. It bathes the brain and spine in nutrients and eliminates
waste products. It also cushions them to help prevent injury in the event of
A CSF culture may be ordered when a person exhibits symptoms of CNS
inflammation or infection. It can help diagnose the illness and determine the
is the purpose of a CSF culture?
A CSF culture is used to detect infectious organisms in the CSF. The CNS is
vulnerable to infection by bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
A CSF culture can help diagnose several disorders, including:
- bacterial or viral meningitis
- fungal infections
- bleeding around the brain (subarachnoid hemorrhage)
- brain and spinal cord damage
- multiple sclerosis
- Lyme disease
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
CSF pressure may also be measured at the same time a CSF culture is
is a CSF culture performed?
A lumbar puncture, or “spinal tap,” is used to collect CSF for culture. A
physician will insert a needle into the space between two vertebrae in the
lower spine. The needle will then be moved carefully into the CSF-filled space
surrounding the spinal cord. When the needle is in place, fluid can drip out
into a collection vial. More than one vial may be needed, and the procedure can
take several minutes.
Other methods can also be used to collect CSF, though they are only used in
people who have deformities of the spine or cannot undergo a standard lumbar
puncture. A needle can be inserted under the occipital bone at the base of the
brain. A hole can also be drilled directly into the skull.
Once enough CSF has been collected, it is sent to a laboratory. The
laboratory technicians will place the CSF in dishes containing culture medium.
The dishes are monitored for the growth of infectious organisms. If there is no
growth, the test is considered normal, or negative.
The test is considered positive if bacteria, viruses, or fungi are detected
in your CSF. This means there is an infection.
are the risks of a CSF culture?
The CSF culture is not dangerous, though CSF collection does have risks.
Risks of lumbar puncture include:
- discomfort or pain during the procedure
- bleeding into the spinal cord, particularly in people
who take blood thinners or have a low platelet count (thrombocytopenia)
- headache as a result of CSF leakage
- nerve damage
Generally, lumbar punctures should not be performed on anyone with a brain
tumor or cyst. In such cases, the procedure can cause brain damage and even
death. You can minimize the risk of headache by avoiding strenuous activities
the day of the procedure and staying well hydrated. A nonprescription
medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), can help reduce back pain or
The results of your CSF culture will help your healthcare provider determine
what’s causing your symptoms. You may require additional tests, such as:
- blood culture
- complete blood count (CBC)
- computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI)
Your healthcare provider will help you put together a treatment plan to
effectively target and ease the symptoms you are experiencing.