Evaluating the Patient With a Pulmonary Nodule: A Review

JAMA. 2022 Jan 18;327(3):264-273. doi: 10.1001/jama.2021.24287.


Importance: Pulmonary nodules are identified in approximately 1.6 million patients per year in the US and are detected on approximately 30% of computed tomographic (CT) images of the chest. Optimal treatment of an individual with a pulmonary nodule can lead to early detection of cancer while minimizing testing for a benign nodule.

Observations: At least 95% of all pulmonary nodules identified are benign, most often granulomas or intrapulmonary lymph nodes. Smaller nodules are more likely to be benign. Pulmonary nodules are categorized as small solid (<8 mm), larger solid (≥8 mm), and subsolid. Subsolid nodules are divided into ground-glass nodules (no solid component) and part-solid (both ground-glass and solid components). The probability of malignancy is less than 1% for all nodules smaller than 6 mm and 1% to 2% for nodules 6 mm to 8 mm. Nodules that are 6 mm to 8 mm can be followed with a repeat chest CT in 6 to 12 months, depending on the presence of patient risk factors and imaging characteristics associated with lung malignancy, clinical judgment about the probability of malignancy, and patient preferences. The treatment of an individual with a solid pulmonary nodule 8 mm or larger is based on the estimated probability of malignancy; the presence of patient comorbidities, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary artery disease; and patient preferences. Management options include surveillance imaging, defined as monitoring for nodule growth with chest CT imaging, positron emission tomography-CT imaging, nonsurgical biopsy with bronchoscopy or transthoracic needle biopsy, and surgical resection. Part-solid pulmonary nodules are managed according to the size of the solid component. Larger solid components are associated with a higher risk of malignancy. Ground-glass pulmonary nodules have a probability of malignancy of 10% to 50% when they persist beyond 3 months and are larger than 10 mm in diameter. A malignant nodule that is entirely ground glass in appearance is typically slow growing. Current bronchoscopy and transthoracic needle biopsy methods yield a sensitivity of 70% to 90% for a diagnosis of lung cancer.

Conclusions and relevance: Pulmonary nodules are identified in approximately 1.6 million people per year in the US and approximately 30% of chest CT images. The treatment of an individual with a pulmonary nodule should be guided by the probability that the nodule is malignant, safety of testing, the likelihood that additional testing will be informative, and patient preferences.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biopsy, Needle
  • Bronchoscopy
  • Comorbidity
  • Early Detection of Cancer / methods
  • Humans
  • Lung / pathology
  • Lung Neoplasms* / diagnostic imaging
  • Lung Neoplasms* / epidemiology
  • Lung Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Lung Neoplasms* / therapy
  • Multiple Pulmonary Nodules* / diagnostic imaging
  • Multiple Pulmonary Nodules* / epidemiology
  • Multiple Pulmonary Nodules* / pathology
  • Multiple Pulmonary Nodules* / therapy
  • Patient Preference
  • Risk Factors
  • Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography Computed Tomography
  • Solitary Pulmonary Nodule* / diagnostic imaging
  • Solitary Pulmonary Nodule* / epidemiology
  • Solitary Pulmonary Nodule* / pathology
  • Solitary Pulmonary Nodule* / therapy
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / statistics & numerical data
  • Tumor Burden