Brain abscess (or cerebral abscess) is an abscess caused by inflammation and collection of infected material, coming from local (ear infection, dental abscess, infection of paranasal sinuses, infection of the mastoid air cells of the temporal bone, epidural abscess) or remote (lung, heart, kidney etc.) infectious sources, within the brain tissue. The infection may also be introduced through a skull fracture following a head trauma or surgical procedures. Brain abscess is usually associated with congenital heart disease in young children. It may occur at any age but is most frequent in the third decade of life.
The symptoms of brain abscess are caused by a combination of increased intracranial pressure due to a space-occupying lesion (headache, vomiting, confusion, coma), infection (fever, fatigue etc.) and focal neurologic brain tissue damage (hemiparesis, aphasia etc.). The most frequent presenting symptoms are headache, drowsiness, confusion, seizures, hemiparesis or speech difficulties together with fever with a rapidly progressive course. The symptoms and findings depend largely on the specific location of the abscess in the brain. An abscess in the cerebellum, for instance, may cause additional complaints as a result of brain stem compression and hydrocephalus. Neurological examination may reveal a stiff neck in occasional cases (erroneously suggesting meningitis). The famous triad of fever, headache and focal neurologic findings are highly suggestive of brain abscess.
The most common organisms recovered from cultures are Streptococcus cocci. However, a wide variety of other bacteria (for instance, Proteus, Pseudomonas, Neisseria, Haemophilus, Mycobacterium) may also cause the disease.
Bacterial abscesses rarely (if ever) arise de novo within the brain, although establishing a cause can be difficult in many cases. There is almost always a primary lesion elsewhere in the body that must be sought assiduously, because failure to treat the primary lesion will result in relapse. In cases of trauma, for example in compound skull fractures where fragments of bone are pushed into the substance of the brain, the cause of the abscess is obvious. Similarly, bullets and other foreign bodies may become sources of infection if left in place. The location of the primary lesion may be suggested by the location of the abscess: infections of the middle ear result in lesions in the middle and posterior cranial fossae; congenital heart disease with right-to-left shunts often result in abscesses in the distribution of the middle cerebral artery; and infection of the frontal and ethmoid sinuses usually results in collection in the subdural sinuses.
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