Context: Influenza vaccination lowers, but does not eliminate, the risk of influenza. Making a reliable, rapid clinical diagnosis is essential to appropriate patient management that may be especially important during shortages of antiviral agents caused by high demand.
Objectives: To systematically review the precision and accuracy of symptoms and signs of influenza. A secondary objective was to review the operating characteristics of rapid diagnostic tests for influenza (results available in <30 min).
Data sources: Structured search strategy using MEDLINE (January 1966-September 2004) and subsequent searches of bibliographies of retrieved articles to identify articles describing primary studies dealing with the diagnosis of influenza based on clinical signs and symptoms. The MEDLINE search used the Medical Subject Headings EXP influenza or EXP influenza A virus or EXP influenza A virus human or EXP influenza B virus and the Medical Subject Headings or terms EXP sensitivity and specificity or EXP medical history taking or EXP physical examination or EXP reproducibility of results or EXP observer variation or symptoms.mp or clinical signs.mp or sensitivity.mp or specificity.mp.
Study selection: Of 915 identified articles on clinical assessment of influenza-related illness, 17 contained data on the operating characteristics of symptoms and signs using an independent criterion standard. Of these, 11 were eliminated based on 4 inclusion criteria and availability of nonduplicative primary data.
Data extraction: Two authors independently reviewed and abstracted data for estimating the likelihood ratios (LRs) of clinical diagnostic findings. Differences were resolved by discussion and consensus.
Data synthesis: No symptom or sign had a summary LR greater than 2 in studies that enrolled patients without regard to age. For decreasing the likelihood of influenza, the absence of fever (LR, 0.40; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.25-0.66), cough (LR, 0.42; 95% CI, 0.31-0.57), or nasal congestion (LR, 0.49; 95% CI, 0.42-0.59) were the only findings that had summary LRs less than 0.5. In studies limited to patients aged 60 years or older, the combination of fever, cough, and acute onset (LR, 5.4; 95% CI, 3.8-7.7), fever and cough (LR, 5.0; 95% CI, 3.5-6.9), fever alone (LR, 3.8; 95% CI, 2.8-5.0), malaise (LR, 2.6; 95% CI, 2.2-3.1), and chills (LR, 2.6; 95% CI, 2.0-3.2) increased the likelihood of influenza to the greatest degree. The presence of sneezing among older patients made influenza less likely (LR, 0.47; 95% CI, 0.24-0.92).
Conclusions: Clinical findings identify patients with influenza-like illness but are not particularly useful for confirming or excluding the diagnosis of influenza. Clinicians should use timely epidemiologic data to ascertain if influenza is circulating in their communities, then either treat patients with influenza-like illness empirically or obtain a rapid influenza test to assist with management decisions.