Does “etiology” refer to the the original source or can it refer to a middle cause?

This question was asked in my dental school class:

What is the etiology of the diagnosis of the brain abscess? The original cause was an infected tooth which led to the proliferation of a certain bacteria which led to a brain abscess.

So how far back does the word etiology imply? Is the correct answer the infected tooth or the bacteria? Because bacteria was the direct cause of the brain abscess, but the infected tooth was the original cause of the bacteria’s proliferation!

I believe the answer is the bacteria because that was the direct cause of the abscess but I would like the opinion of the literary wizards on this wonderful site.


I am not a literary wizard but i have experience in such and will offer my humble answer.

etiology TFD

a. The study of causes or origins.
b. The branch of medicine that deals with the causes or origins of disease.

There can be more than one etiology in a chain that lead to the manifestation of disease. The bacteria from the tooth may indeed be the etiology of the brain abscess. But there could have been a chain of etiologies that lead to same. Trauma to tooth (10 years ago), leading to root canal (4 years ago), then abscess at tooth leading to an apical abscess (one year ago) and finally spread of infection to the brain. In this case the academic discussion could say trauma was the proximate etiology

The infected tooth in your example could be the proximate etiology causing subsequent etiologies. The bacteria could be the causative agent. But clinically saying: bacteria from the infected tooth should suffice and earn you good marks.

Just saying

I believe the answer is the bacteria because that was the direct cause
of the abscess

leaves open the possibility of the same bacteria from other sources.

Source : Link , Question Author : Remi , Answer Author : lbf

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