Pneumonia in immunocompromised patients is often caused by unusual pathogens but may also be caused by the same pathogens as those that cause community-acquired pneumonia (see Community-Acquired Pneumonia and see Overview of Pneumonia). Symptoms and signs depend on the pathogen and on the conditions compromising the immune system. Diagnosis is based on blood cultures and bronchoscopic sampling of respiratory secretions, sometimes with quantitative cultures. Treatment depends on the immune system defect and the pathogen.
The potential pathogens in patients with compromised immune system defenses are legion. Likely pathogens depend on the type of defect in immune system defenses (see Table 4: Pneumonia in Immunocompromised Patients). However, respiratory symptoms and changes on chest x-rays in immunocompromised patients may be due to various processes other than infection, such as pulmonary hemorrhage, pulmonary edema, radiation injury, pulmonary toxicity due to cytotoxic drugs, and tumor infiltrates.
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Symptoms and Signs
Symptoms and signs may be the same as those that occur with community-acquired pneumonia (see Symptoms and Signs) or hospital-acquired pneumonia (see Symptoms and Signs) in immunocompetent patients. Symptoms may include malaise, chills, fever, rigor, cough, dyspnea, and chest pain. However, immunocompromised patients may have no fever or respiratory signs and are less likely to have purulent sputum if they are neutropenic. In some patients, the only sign is fever.
Chest x-ray and assessment of oxygenation (usually by pulse oximetry) is done in immunocompromised patients with respiratory symptoms, signs, or fever. If an infiltrate or hypoxemia is present, diagnostic studies should be done. Chest x-ray may be normal in Pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia, but hypoxia is usually present.
Sputum testing and blood cultures are done. Sputum testing should include Gram stain, mycobacterial and fungal stains and cultures, and sometimes testing for viruses (eg, PCR for cytomegalovirus in a transplant patient or in a patient with AIDS). If signs, symptoms, or risk factors for Aspergillus infection are present (see Pathophysiology), serum galactomannan assay should be done.
Optimally, a firm diagnosis is made with induced sputum, bronchoscopy, or both, especially in patients with mild pneumonia, severe defects in immune function, or failure to respond to broad-spectrum antibiotics.
Likely pathogens can often be predicted based on symptoms, x-ray changes, and the type of immunodeficiency. In patients with acute symptoms, the differential diagnosis includes bacterial infection, hemorrhage, pulmonary edema, a leukocyte agglutinin reaction to transfusion of blood products, and pulmonary emboli. M An indolent time course is more suggestive of a fungal or mycobacterial infection, an opportunistic viral infection, P. jirovecii pneumonia, tumor, a cytotoxic drug reaction, or radiation injury.
X-rays showing localized consolidation usually indicate an infection involving bacteria, mycobacteria, fungi, or Nocardia sp. A diffuse interstitial pattern is more likely to represent a viral infection, P. jirovecii pneumonia, drug or radiation injury, or pulmonary edema. Diffuse nodular lesions suggest mycobacteria, Nocardia sp, fungi, or tumor. Cavitary disease suggests mycobacteria, Nocardia sp, fungi, or bacteria, particularly S. aureus.
In organ or bone marrow transplantation recipients with bilateral interstitial pneumonia, the usual cause is cytomegalovirus, or the disease is idiopathic. A pleural-based consolidation is usually aspergillosis. In patients with AIDS, bilateral pneumonia is usually P. jirovecii pneumonia. About 30% of patients with HIV infection have P. jirovecii pneumonia as the initial AIDS-defining diagnosis, and > 80% of AIDS patients have this infection at some time if prophylaxis is not given (see Prevention of opportunistic infections). Patients with HIV infection become vulnerable to P. jirovecii pneumonia when the CD4+ helper cell count is < 200/μL (see Pneumocystis jiroveciiPneumonia).
The antimicrobial therapy depends on the immune system defect and the risk factors for specific pathogens. Consultation with an infectious diseases specialist is usually indicated. In patients with neutropenia, empiric treatment depends on the immune system defect, x-ray findings, and severity of illness. Generally, broad-spectrum antibiotics that are effective against gram-negative bacilli, Staphylococcus aureus, and anaerobes are needed, as for hospital-acquired pneumonia (see Treatment). If patients with conditions other than HIV infection do not improve with 5 days of antibiotic therapy, antifungal therapy is frequently added empirically.
Therapies to enhance immune system function (see Prevention) are an important adjunct for the treatment of pneumonia in immunocompromised patients.
Therapies to enhance immune system function are indicated for the prevention of pneumonia in immunocompromised patients. For example, patients with chemotherapy-induced neutropenia should receive granulocyte-colony stimulating factor (G-CSF, or filgrastim), and patients with hypogammaglobulinemia due to an inherited or acquired disease (eg, multiple myeloma, leukemia) should receive IV immune globulin.
Patients with HIV and CD4+ helper cell count < 200/μL should receive daily prophylactic therapy with trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole or other appropriate therapy.
Vaccination is also important in these patients. For example, patients at risk of pneumonia with encapsulated bacteria (eg, hypogammaglobulinemia, asplenia) should receive vaccinations again pneumococcus and H. influenzae.
Last full review/revision December 2014 by Sanjay Sethi, MD
Content last modified December 2014