Posttraumatic empyema thoracis: a 24-year experience at a major trauma center

J Trauma. 1997 Nov;43(5):764-71. doi: 10.1097/00005373-199711000-00006.


The purpose of this paper is to review the outcome of patients with posttraumatic empyema thoracis. Between April 1972 and March 1996, the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the King-Drew Medical Center managed or was consulted on 5,474 trauma patients (4,584 patients with penetrating injuries and 890 with blunt injuries) who were admitted emergently for thoracic and thoracoabdominal injuries and who underwent tube thoracostomy. Patients were not given routine prophylactic antibiotics merely because they had a chest tube placed. Based on our previous reports on thoracic trauma, our criteria for empiric antibiotic administration included (1) emergent or urgent thoracotomy, (2) soft-tissue destruction of the chest wall by shotgun injuries, (3) lung contusion with hemoptysis, (4) associated abdominal trauma requiring exploratory laparotomy, or (5) associated open long-bone fractures. Eighty-seven of these 5,474 patients developed posttraumatic empyema thoracis, for an incidence of 1.6%. These 87 patients were treated with tube thoracostomy, image-guided catheter drainage, or open thoracotomy with decortication. Seventy-nine of 87 patients (91%) were cured without conversion to open thoracostomy. Four patients required conversion to open thoracostomy, and there were three deaths. Even though a majority of our patients required decortication, successful management of posttraumatic empyema thoracis also was achieved with closed-tube thoracostomy or image-guided catheter drainage based on clinical and radiographic findings with appropriate patient selection. When thoracic empyema did occur in our group, Staphylococcus aureus was the most common microbe isolated, followed by anaerobic bacteria. In correlating microbiologic data with outcomes, S. aureus, especially methicillin-resistant S. aureus, was the most frequent cause of antibiotic failure. Because of the low incidence of posttraumatic empyema thoracis, we do not recommend routine antibiotic prophylaxis for all trauma patients who undergo closed-tube thoracostomy. A review of the role of tube thoracostomy, intrapleural fibrinolytic therapy, image-guided catheter drainage, video-assisted thoracoscopy, and open thoracotomy for the management of thoracic empyema is provided.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Drainage
  • Empyema, Pleural / etiology
  • Empyema, Pleural / microbiology
  • Empyema, Pleural / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Staphylococcus aureus / isolation & purification
  • Thoracic Injuries / complications*
  • Thoracic Injuries / therapy
  • Thoracostomy*
  • Trauma Centers
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents