Crossing diagnostic borders: Herpes encephalitis complicated by cultural and language barriers

John Muench, Alexandra Verdieck, Alfonso Lopez-Vasquez, Melinda Newell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Background: The patient who complains of vague mental status changes requires extra vigilance in that the underlying condition might itself affect the patient's ability to communicate well and relate a medical history. The differential diagnosis of delirium is broad, ranging from the benign to the potentially fatal. The diagnostic uncertainty inherent in primary care is compounded when language and cultural differences interfere with physician-patient communication. Methods: We undertook a MEDLINE-assisted review of the medical literature concerning herpes simplex encephalitis. Additionally, we performed an Internet search of several government Web sites to find current legal and federal guidelines concerning the use of medical interpreters. Results and Conclusions: We recount the case of a young Eastern European immigrant who complained initially of vague mental status changes and was found to have herpes simplex encephalitis. Diagnosis could have been made sooner had the physician been familiar with the patient's baseline mental status or had cultural and language barriers not stood between the physician and the patient and his mother. Herpes simplex encephalitis is a rare, but specific, cause of delirium for which prompt diagnosis and treatment with intravenous acyclovir can prevent death or serious sequelae.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)46-50
Number of pages5
JournalJournal of the American Board of Family Practice
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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