Although xanthochromia literally means yellow color, when it comes to describing the color of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), a more liberal—but perhaps misleading— definition of xanthochromia extending to other colors, such as pink and orange, is commonly found in the literature. 1-5
In the presence of red blood cells (RBCs) in the subarachnoid space, as seen in subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), 3 pigments are formed by the breakdown of hemoglobin in the CSF: oxyhemoglobin, methemoglobin, and bilirubin. Oxyhemoglobin is typically red but has also been reported to appear orange or orange-yellow with dilution.6 Methemoglobin is brown and bilirubin is yellow. Of these pigments, only bilirubin can be formed solely from in vivo conversion, while oxyhemoglobin and methemoglobin may also form after CSF has been obtained (eg, in tubes). Due to the suboptimal reliability of visual inspection, some have argued for the routine use of spectrophotometry of the CSF instead in patients with suspected SAH.7
In our patient, the “pink xanthochromia” may be related to RBC breakdown either due to a SAH or as a result of hemolysis in the sample tubes themselves, especially if there was a delay in processing the specimen. Even if he had “true xanthochromia” with yellow discoloration of CSF, make sure to exclude other causes besides SAH, such as high CSF protein, hyperbilirubinemia, rifampin therapy, and high carotenoid intake (eg, carrots).
- Seehusen DA, Reeves MM, Fomin DA. Cerebrospinal fluid analysis. Am Fam Phys 2003;68:1103-8. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2003/0915/p1103.pdf
- Edlow JA, Bruner KS, Horowitz GL. Xanthochromia. A survey of laboratory methodology and its clinical implications. Arch Pthol Lab Med 2002;126:413-15.
- Lo BM, Quinn SM. Gross xanthochromia on lumbar puncture may not represent an acute subarachnoid hemorrhage. Am J Emerg Med 2009;27:621-23.
- Koenig M. Approach to the patient with bloody or pigmented cerebrospinal fluid. In Irani DN, ed, Cerebrospinal fluid in clinical practice. 2009. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-1-4160-2908-3.X0001-6
- Welch H, Hasbun R. Bacterial infections of the central nervous system. In Handbook of Clinical Neurology, 2010. https://www.sciencedirect.com/handbook/handbook-of-clinical-neurology/vol/96/suppl/C
- Barrows LJ, Hunter FT, Banker BQ. The nature and clinical significance of pigments in the cerebrospinal fluid. Brain 1955; 58: 59-80. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14378450
- Cruickshank A, Auld P, Beetham R, et al. Revised national guidelines for analysis of cerebrospinal fluid for bilirubin in suspected subarachnoid haemorrhage. Ann Clin Biochem 2008;45:238-44. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18482910
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