A cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) smear is a microscopic examination of the normally clear fluid that moves in the space surrounding the spinal cord and brain. CSF protects the brain and spinal cord from injury.
Spinal fluid smear; Cerebrospinal fluid smear
How the test is performed
A sample of CSF fluid is needed. This is usually done with a lumbar puncture. For information on how this procedure is performed, see spinal tap.
The sample is sent to a laboratory, where a tiny amount is spread on a glass slide. A member of the laboratory team looks at the sample under a microscope. The smear shows the color of the fluid and the number and shape of cells present in the fluid. Other tests, such as a Gram stain, may be done to check for bacteria.
How to prepare for the test
For information on how to prepare for the procedure to obtain the CSF sample, see spinal tap.
How the test will feel
The laboratory test is painless and does not involve the patient.
For information on how it will feel to have a sample of CSF fluid removed, see spinal tap.
Why the test is performed
The test is done to check for signs of infection in a sample of CSF.
Normal value ranges may vary slightly among different laboratories. Talk to your doctor about the meaning of your specific test results.
What abnormal results mean
If bacteria are present, that indicates bacterial meningitis. Other kinds of infections might include tuberculosis and fungal infections. Some bacteria or viruses can also be detected using special tests.
What the risks are
A laboratory smear poses no risk to the patient. For risks associated with the procedure done to get a CSF sample, see spinal tap.
Griggs RC, Jozefowicz RF, Aminoff MJ. Approach to the patient with neurologic disease. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 418.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.