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Lung abscess represents necrosis and cavitation of the lung following microbial infection. Lung abscesses can be single or multiple but usually are marked by a single dominant cavity >2 cm in diameter.


The low prevalence of lung abscesses makes them difficult to study in randomized controlled trials. Although the incidence of lung abscesses has decreased in the antibiotic era, they are still a source of significant morbidity and mortality.

Lung abscesses are usually characterized as either primary (~80% of cases) or secondary. Primary lung abscesses usually arise from aspiration, are often caused principally by anaerobic bacteria, and occur in the absence of an underlying pulmonary or systemic condition. Secondary lung abscesses arise in the setting of an underlying condition, such as a postobstructive process (e.g., a bronchial foreign body or tumor) or a systemic process (e.g., HIV infection or another immunocompromising condition). Lung abscesses can also be characterized as acute (<4–6 weeks in duration) or chronic (~40% of cases).


The majority of the existing epidemiologic information involves primary lung abscesses. In general, middle-aged men are more commonly affected than middle-aged women. The major risk factor for primary lung abscesses is aspiration. Patients at particular risk for aspiration, such as those with altered mental status, alcoholism, drug overdose, seizures, bulbar dysfunction, prior cerebrovascular or cardiovascular events, or neuromuscular disease, are most commonly affected. In addition, patients with esophageal dysmotility or esophageal lesions (strictures or tumors) and those with gastric distention and/or gastroesophageal reflux, especially those who spend substantial time in the recumbent position, are at risk for aspiration.

It is widely thought that colonization of the gingival crevices by anaerobic bacteria or microaerophilic streptococci (especially in patients with gingivitis and periodontal disease), combined with a risk of aspiration, is important in the development of lung abscesses. In fact, many physicians consider it extremely rare for lung abscesses to develop in the absence of teeth as a nidus for bacterial colonization.

The importance of these risk factors in the development of lung abscesses is highlighted by a significant reduction in abscess incidence in the late 1940s that coincided with a change in oral surgical technique: beginning at that time, these operations were no longer performed with the patient in the seated position without a cuffed endotracheal tube, and the frequency of perioperative aspiration events was thus decreased. In addition, the introduction of penicillin around the same time significantly reduced the incidence of and mortality rate from lung abscess.


Primary Lung Abscesses

The development of primary lung abscesses is thought to originate when chiefly anaerobic bacteria (as well as microaerophilic streptococci) in the gingival crevices are aspirated into the lung parenchyma in a susceptible host (Table 122-1). Patients who develop ...

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