How should I interpret the growth of “normal respiratory flora” from sputum of my patient with community-acquired pneumonia (CAP)?

Since the primary reason for obtaining a sputum culture in a patient with pneumonia is to sample the lower respiratory tract, you should first verify that the sputum was “adequate” by reviewing the gram stain. Absence of neutrophils (unless the patient is neutropenic) with or without epithelial cells on gram stain of sputum suggests that it may not be an adequate sample (ie, likely saliva)1, and therefore growth of normal respiratory flora (NRF) should not be surprising in this setting.  

Other potential explanations for NRF on sputum culture in patients with CAP include:2-5

  • Delay in sputum processing with possible overgrowth of oropharyngeal flora.
  • Pneumonia caused by pathogens that do not grow on standard sputum culture media (eg, atypical organisms, viruses, anaerobes).
  • Pneumonia caused by potential pathogens such as as Streptococcus mitis and Streptococcus anginosus group that may be part of the NRF.
  • Initiation of antibiotics prior to cultures (eg, in pneumococcal pneumonia).

Of note, since 2010, several studies have shown that over 50% of patients with CAP do not have an identifiable cause.3 So, growing NRF from sputum of patients with CAP appears to be common.

References

  1. Wong LK, Barry AL, Horgan SM. Comparison of six different criteria for judging the acceptability of sputum specimens. J Clin Microbiol 1982;16:627-631. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7153311
  2. Donowitz GR. Acute pneumonia. In Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett’s Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases (2010). Churchill Livingstone, pp 891-916.
  3. Musher DM, Abers MS, Bartlett JG. Evolving understanding of the causes of pneumonia in adults, with special attention to the role of pneumococcus. Clin Infect Dis 2017;65: 1736-44. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29028977
  4. Abers MS, Musher DM. The yield of sputum culture in bacteremic pneumococcal pneumonia after initiation of antibiotics. Clin Infect Dis 2014; 58:1782. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24604901
  5. Bartlett JG, Gorbach SL, Finegold SM. The bacteriology of aspiration pneumonia. Bartlett JG, Gorbach SL, Finegold SM. Am J Med 1974;56:202-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4812076
How should I interpret the growth of “normal respiratory flora” from sputum of my patient with community-acquired pneumonia (CAP)?

In hospitalized patients with community-acquired pneumonia (CAP), has empiric treatment with beta-lactam plus macrolide or a quinolone been shown to be superior to beta-lactam monotherapy ?

Actually no!

In fact, a 2015 study of CAP from Netherlands, published in New England Journal of Medicine, demonstrated that empiric treatment with beta-lactam monotherapy was not inferior to strategies using a beta-lactam-macrolide combination or fluoroquinolone monotherapy with regard to 90-day mortality, or length of hospital stay (1). To help exclude Legionella pneumonia (often accounting for <5% of CAP[2]), urine Legionella antigen was routinely performed in this study.

So once Legionella has been reasonably excluded, unless suspicion for other atypical causes of CAP (i.e. Mycoplasma pneumoniae or Chlamydophila pneumoniae) remains high, empiric monotherapy with a beta-lactam (e.g. ceftriaxone) may be just as effective in many cases of CAP.

References

1. Postma DF1, van Werkhoven CH, van Elden LJ, et al. CAP-START Study Group Antibiotic treatment strategies for community-acquired pneumonia in adults. N Engl J Med. 2015;372:1312-23.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25830421  

2. von Baum H, Ewig S, Marre R, et al. Competence Network for Community Acquired Pneumonia Study Group. Community-acquired Legionella pneumonia: new insights from the German competence network for community acquired pneumonia. Clin Infect Dis 2008;46:1356. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18419436

Contributed by Jessica A. Hennessey, MD, PhD, Mass General Hospital, Boston, MA

In hospitalized patients with community-acquired pneumonia (CAP), has empiric treatment with beta-lactam plus macrolide or a quinolone been shown to be superior to beta-lactam monotherapy ?