Background: The role of viruses in community-acquired pneumonia may have been previously underestimated. We aimed to study the incidence and clinical characteristics of community-acquired pneumonia (CAP) due to respiratory viruses in adults adding PCR to routine conventional laboratory tests.
Methods: Consecutive adult patients diagnosed of CAP from January 2003 to March 2004 were included. Conventional tests including cultures of blood, sputum, urine antigen detection of Streptococcus pneumoniae and Legionella pneumophila, and paired serologies were routinely performed. Nasopharyngeal swabs were processed for study of respiratory viruses through antigen detection by indirect immunofluorescence assay, isolation of viruses in cell culture and detection of nucleic acids by two independent multiplex RT-PCR assays. According to the aetiology, patients were categorized in 4 groups: group 1, only virus detected; group 2, only bacteria detected; group 3, viral and bacterial; and group 4, unkown aetiology.
Results: Of 340 patients diagnosed with CAP, 198 had nasopharyngeal swabs available and were included in this study. Aetiology was established in 112 (57%) patients: group 1, n=26 (13%); group 2, n=66 (33%); group 3, n=20 (10%). The most common aetiological agent was S. neumoniae (58 patients, 29%), followed by respiratory viruses (46 patients, 23%). Forty-eight respiratory viruses were identified: influenza virus A (n=16), respiratory syncytial virus A (n=5), adenovirus (n=8), parainfluenza viruses (n=5), enteroviruses (n=1), rhinoviruses (n=8) and coronavirus (n=5). There were two patients coinfected by two respiratory viruses. Serology detected 6 viruses, immunofluorescence 8, viral culture 12, and PCR 45. For the viruses that could be diagnosed with conventional methods, the sensitivity and specificity of RT-PCR was 85% and 92%, respectively. The only clinical characteristic that significantly distinguished viral from bacterial aetiology was a lower number of leukocytes (P=0.004).
Conclusion: PCR revealed that viruses represent a common aetiology of CAP. There is an urgent need to reconsider routine laboratory tests for an adequate diagnosis of respiratory viruses, as clinical characteristics are unable to reliably distinguish viral from bacterial aetiology.