BACKGROUND: Lumbar puncture with quantification of leukocytes and differential count of cellular subsets in the cerebrospinal fluid is a standard procedure in cases of suspected neuroinfectious conditions. However, a number of non-infectious causes may result in a low leukocyte number (0-1000 cells/ml). We wanted to assess the diagnostic diversity of unselected adult patients with pleocytosis in the cerebrospinal fluid.
METHODS: The study is based on data from cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analyses of all adult patients (15 years or older) admitted to a large university hospital in Denmark during a two-year period (2008-2009). Data from the local patient administrative system supplied with data from patient charts were combined with laboratory data.
RESULTS: A total of 5390 cerebrospinal fluid samples from 3290 patients were included. Pleocytosis >5 leucocytes/μl was found in samples from 262 patients of which 106 (40.5%) were caused by infection of the central nervous system (CNS), 20 (7.6%) by infection outside CNS, 79 (30.2%) due to non-infectious neurological diseases, 23 (8.8%) by malignancy, and 34 (13.0%) caused by other conditions. Significantly higher mean CSF leukocytes was found in patients suffering from CNS infection (mean 1135 cells/μl, p-value <0.0001).
CONCLUSIONS: CNS infection, non-infectious neurological disease, malignancy, and infection outside CNS can cause pleocytosis of the cerebrospinal fluid. Leukocyte counts above 100/μl is mainly caused by CNS infection, whereas the number of differential diagnoses is higher if the CSF leukocyte counts is below 50/μl. These conditions are most commonly caused by non-infectious neurological diseases including seizures.