Background: A progressive lung disease and a worse survival have been observed in patients with systemic sclerosis and alveolitis. The objective of this study was to define the functional, radiological and biological markers of alveolitis in SSc patients.
Methods: 100 SSc patients (76 with limited and 24 with diffuse disease) underwent a multistep assessment of cardiopulmonary system: pulmonary function tests (PFTs) every 6-12 months, echocardiography, high resolution computed tomography (HRCT) and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL), if clinically advisable. Alveolar and interstitial scores on HRCT and IL-6 plasma levels were also assessed as lung disease activity indices.
Results: 90 SSc patients with abnormal PFTs and 3 with signs and/or symptoms of lung involvement and normal PFTs underwent HRCT and echocardiography. HRCT revealed evidence of fibrosis in 87 (93.5%) patients, with 55 (59.1%) showing both ground glass attenuation and fibrosis. In 42 patients who had exhibited ground glass on HRCT and consented to undergo BAL, 16 (38.1%) revealed alveolitis. 12 (75%) of these patients had restrictive lung disease (p < 0.0001) and presented diffuse skin involvement (p = 0.0009). IL-6 plasma levels were higher in patients with alveolitis than in patients without (p = 0.041). On logistic regression model the best independent predictors of alveolitis were diffuse skin involvement (OR(95%CIs):12.80(2.54-64.37)) and skin score > 14 (OR(95%CIs):7.03(1.40-34.33)). The alveolar score showed a significant correlation with IL-6 plasma levels (r = 0.36, p = 0.001) and with the skin score (r = 0.33, p = 0.001). Cultures of BAL fluid resulted positive in 10 (23.8%) of the 42 patients that underwent BAL and after one year a deterioration in PFTs occurred in 8 (80%) of these patients (p = 0.01). Pulmonary artery systolic pressure > or = 40 mmHg was found in 6 (37.5%) patients with alveolitis.
Conclusion: We found alveolitis only in 38.1% of the patients who had exhibited ground glass on HRCT and then underwent BAL, probably because the concomitant fibrosis influenced results. A diffuse skin involvement and a restrictive pattern on PFTs together with ground glass on HRCT were judged possible markers of alveolitis, a BAL examination being indicated as the next step. Nevertheless BAL would be necessary to detect any infections of the lower respiratory tract that may cause further deterioration in lung function.