Objective: To determine the clinical presentation of emergency department (ED) patients with active pulmonary tuberculosis (TB).
Methods: This was a retrospective medical record review of adult patients, identified through infection control records, diagnosed as having active pulmonary TB by sputum culture over a 30-month period at an urban teaching hospital. The ED visits by these patients from one year before to one year after the initial positive sputum culture were categorized as contagious or noncontagious, using defined clinical and radiographic criteria. The medical records of patients with contagious visits to the ED were reviewed to determine chief complaint, presence of TB risk factors and symptoms, and physical examination and chest radiograph findings.
Results: During the study period, 44 patients with active pulmonary TB made 66 contagious ED visits. Multiple contagious ED visits were made by 12 patients (27%; 95% CI = 15% to 43%). Chief complaints were pulmonary 33% (95% CI = 22% to 46%), medical but nonpulmonary 41% (95% CI = 29% to 54%), infectious but nonpulmonary 14% (95% CI = 6% to 24%), and traumatic/orthopedic 12% (95% CI = 5% to 22%). At least one TB risk factor was identified in 57 (86%; 95% CI% = 76 to 94%) patient visits and at least one TB symptom in 51 (77%; 95% CI = 65% to 87%) patient visits. Cough was present during only 64% (95% CI = 51% to 75%) of the patient visits and hemoptysis during 8% (95% CI = 3% to 17%). Risk factors and symptoms that, if present, were likely to be detected at triage were foreign birth, homelessness, HIV positivity, hemoptysis, and chest pain.
Conclusions: Patients with active pulmonary TB may have multiple ED visits, and often have nonpulmonary complaints. Tuberculosis risk factors and symptoms are usually present in these patients but often missed at ED triage. The diversity of clinical presentations among ED patients with pulmonary TB will likely make it difficult to develop and implement high-yield triage screening criteria.