Objectives: To determine the age at which tuberculous pleural effusions occur, the radiological and biochemical characteristics of the effusions, the sensitivities of the various diagnostic tests, and the utility of combining clinical, radiological, and analytic data in diagnosis.
Methods: We studied the case histories of 254 patients in whom tuberculous pleural effusions were diagnosed with certainty between January 1, 1989, and June 30, 1997, in a Spanish university hospital in a region with a high incidence of tuberculosis.
Results: The mean (+/-SD) age of the patients was 34.1+/-18.1 years, and 62.2% were younger than 35 years. The effusion was on the right side in 55.9% of patients, on the left side in 42.5% of patients, and on both sides in 1.6% of patients. In 81.5% of patients, less than two thirds of the hemithorax was affected. Associated pulmonary lesions were detected in 18.9% of patients, of whom 14.6% exhibited cavitation. In 93.3% of the effusions, more than 50% of leukocytes were lymphocytes, and almost all had the biologic characteristics of exudates (98.8% had high total protein contents, 94.9% had high cholesterol levels, and 82.3% had high lactate dehydrogenase levels). All but 1 effusion (99.6%) had an adenosine deaminase (ADA) concentration higher than 47 U/L, 96.8% (123/127) of the effusions had high ADA2 levels, and 89% (73/82) of the effusions had high interferon gamma levels. Adenosine deaminase 2 contributed 72.2%+/-12.5% (mean +/- SD) of total ADA activity. Total ADA activity was significantly correlated with ADA2 (r = 0.83) and with interferon gamma (r = 0.30) levels. Definitive diagnosis was based on the observation of caseous granulomas in pleural biopsy tissue samples in 79.8% of patients, on the results of biopsy cultures in 11.7% of patients, and on pleural effusion cultures in the remaining 8.5% of patients. Results of the tuberculin skin test were positive in only 66.5% of patients.
Conclusions: In these patients, lymphocyte-rich exudative pleural effusions occurred, on average, at a young age, with no preference for either the right or the left side; normally affected no more than two thirds of the hemithorax; and were generally unaccompanied by pulmonary infiltrates. High ADA concentration was a highly sensitive diagnostic sign and was caused by a rise in ADA2 concentration. The most sensitive criterion based on pleural biopsy was the observation of caseous granulomas, and culture of biopsy material further increased overall sensitivity. Negative skin test results were no guarantee of the effusion being nontuberculous. This, together with the low mean age of the patients and the low frequency of associated pulmonary lesions, suggests that tuberculous pleural effusion is a primary form of tuberculosis in this region.