Mediastinitis in the intensive care unit patient: a narrative review

Clin Microbiol Infect. 2020 Jan;26(1):26-34. doi: 10.1016/j.cmi.2019.07.005. Epub 2019 Jul 12.


Background: Mediastinitis is a rare but severe infection, defined as an inflammation of the connective tissues and structures within the mediastinum. Due to its proximity to vital structures, mediastinitis represents a highly morbid pathological process associated with a high risk of mortality. In most cases mediastinitis requires treatment in the intensive care unit.

Objectives: To highlight to the reader the clinical features of mediastinitis, to attempt to define each clinical scenario, to describe the responsible pathogens and finally to depict both the medical and surgical treatments.

Sources: We performed a literature search of the PubMed and Cochrane libraries, limited for articles published between January 2003 and December 2018, reporting on acute mediastinitis.

Content: The term covers different entities of different aetiologies including deep sternal wound infection related to sternotomy; oesophageal perforation or anastomosis leakage; and finally descending necrotizing mediastinitis, often secondary to oropharyngeal abscess. The responsible pathogens and therefore subsequent management depends on the underlying aetiology. Empirical antimicrobial therapy should cover the suspected microorganisms while surgery and supportive measures should aim to reduce the inoculum of pathogens by providing adequate drainage and debridement.

Implications: Literature concerning mediastinitis in the intensive care unit is relatively scarce. We have collated the evidence and reviewed the different causes and treatment options of acute mediastinitis with a particular focus on microbiological epidemiology. Future research in larger cohorts is needed to better understand the treatment of this difficult disease.

Keywords: Deep sternal wound infection; Descending necrotizing mediastinitis; Intensive care unit; Mediastinitis; Severe infection; Severe sepsis; oesophagal perforation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Abscess
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Bacteria / drug effects
  • Bacterial Infections / therapy
  • Debridement
  • Drainage
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units*
  • Mediastinitis / microbiology*
  • Mediastinitis / mortality
  • Mediastinitis / therapy
  • Oropharynx / microbiology
  • Sepsis


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents