Background: Haemophilus influenzae is a common pathogen in adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In a prospective study, selected isolates of apparent H. influenzae had an altered phenotype. We tested the hypothesis that these variant strains were genetically different from typical H. influenzae.
Methods: A prospective study of adults with COPD was conducted. Strains of apparent H. influenzae obtained from a range of clinical sources were evaluated by ribosomal DNA sequence analysis, multilocus sequence analysis, DNA-DNA hybridization, and sequencing of the conserved P6 gene.
Results: Variant strains were determined to be Haemophilus haemolyticus by means of 4 independent methods. Analysis of 490 apparent H. influenzae strains, identified by standard methods, revealed that 39.5% of sputum isolates and 27.3% of nasopharyngeal isolates were H. haemolyticus. Isolates obtained from normally sterile sites were all H. influenzae. In a prospective study, acquisitions of new strains of H. haemolyticus were not associated with exacerbations of COPD, whereas 45% of acquisitions of new strains of H. influenzae were associated with exacerbations.
Conclusions: Standard methods do not reliably distinguish H. haemolyticus from H. influenzae. H. haemolyticus is a respiratory tract commensal. The recognition that some strains of apparent H. influenzae are H. haemolyticus substantially strengthens the association of true H. influenzae with clinical infection.