Cholesterol embolism: still an unrecognized entity with a high mortality rate

J Am Acad Dermatol. 2006 Nov;55(5):786-93. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2006.05.012. Epub 2006 Jun 27.


Background: Cholesterol embolism (CE) is an increasingly common but often underdiagnosed medical problem. The recognition of clinical manifestations of CE is the first step toward a correct diagnosis.

Objective: Our aim was to characterize the features of CE and the risk factors for fatal outcome.

Methods: Clinical records of patients with clinical and histopathologic diagnoses of CE seen from January 1993 through March 2003 were reviewed.

Results: Twenty-six male patients were identified. Mean age was 64 years (range, 48-88 years). All patients had two or more risk factors for atherosclerosis. All but one patient had preexisting symptomatic atherosclerotic disease. At least one precipitating factor was identified in 23 patients (88%). Diagnosis of CE at admission was made in 9 patients only (35%). Cutaneous lesions (88%) and renal failure (73%) were the most common clinical findings. Complications (dialysis, acute pulmonary edema, amputation, or gastrointestinal surgery) were present in 21 patients (81%), and 15 patients died (58%). Previous chronic renal failure was the only variable associated with mortality (relative risk: 4.54, 95% confidence interval 1.26-16.6; P = .02).

Limitations: The results were obtained from patients admitted to a university hospital. This fact may have selected a higher proportion of severe cases.

Conclusions: CE was frequently misdiagnosed. Skin lesions were the most common clinical findings and skin biopsy provided histologic confirmation in most of the patients. Chronic renal failure was the only factor related to death.

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Amputation, Surgical
  • Atherosclerosis / complications
  • Atherosclerosis / etiology
  • Biopsy
  • Diagnostic Errors
  • Digestive System Surgical Procedures
  • Embolism, Cholesterol / complications*
  • Embolism, Cholesterol / diagnosis
  • Embolism, Cholesterol / mortality*
  • Humans
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / etiology
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / therapy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pulmonary Edema / complications
  • Renal Dialysis
  • Renal Insufficiency / etiology
  • Renal Insufficiency / physiopathology
  • Risk
  • Risk Factors
  • Skin / pathology
  • Skin Diseases / etiology