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  • Chronic cough, sputum production, and fatigue; less commonly: malaise, dyspnea, fever, hemoptysis, and weight loss.

  • Parenchymal opacities on chest radiograph, most often thin-walled cavities or multiple small nodules associated with bronchiectasis.

  • Isolation of nontuberculous mycobacteria in a sputum culture.


Mycobacteria other than M tuberculosis—nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM), sometimes referred to as “atypical” mycobacteria—are ubiquitous in water and soil and have been isolated from tap water. Marked geographic variability exists, both in the NTM species responsible for disease and in the prevalence of disease. These organisms are not considered communicable from person to person, have distinct laboratory characteristics, and are often resistant to most antituberculous medications (Chapter 33). Long-term epidemiologic data suggest that NTM disease has been increasing in the United States.


The diagnosis of lung disease caused by NTM is based on a combination of clinical, radiographic, and bacteriologic criteria and the exclusion of other diseases that can resemble the condition. Specific diagnostic criteria are discussed below. Complementary data are important for diagnosis because NTM organisms can reside in or colonize the airways without causing clinical disease.

Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) is the most frequent cause of NTM pulmonary disease in humans in the United States. Mycobacterium kansasii is the next most frequent pulmonary pathogen. Other NTM causes of pulmonary disease include Mycobacterium abscessus, Mycobacterium xenopi, and Mycobacterium malmoense; the list of more unusual etiologic NTM species is long. Most NTM cause a chronic pulmonary infection that resembles tuberculosis but tends to progress more slowly. Disseminated disease is rare in immunocompetent persons; however, disseminated MAC disease is common in patients with AIDS.


A. Symptoms and Signs

NTM infection among immunocompetent persons frequently presents in one of three prototypical patterns: cavitary, upper lobe lesions in older male smokers that may mimic M tuberculosis; nodular bronchiectasis affecting the mid lung zones in middle-aged women with chronic cough; and hypersensitivity pneumonitis following environmental exposure. Most patients with NTM infection experience a chronic cough, sputum production, and fatigue. Less common symptoms include malaise, dyspnea, fever, hemoptysis, and weight loss. Symptoms from coexisting lung disease (COPD, bronchiectasis, previous mycobacterial disease, cystic fibrosis, and pneumoconiosis) may confound the evaluation. In patients with bronchiectasis, coinfection with NTM and Aspergillus is a negative prognostic factor. New or worsening infiltrates as well as adenopathy or pleural effusion (or both) are described in HIV-positive patients with NTM infection as part of the immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome following institution of antiretroviral therapy.

B. Laboratory Findings

The diagnosis of NTM infection rests on recovery of the pathogen from cultures. Sputum cultures positive for atypical mycobacteria do not prove infection because NTM may exist as saprophytes colonizing the airways or ...

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