The radiological appearances of diffuse pulmonary shadowing are not specific and frequently histological examination is necessary to provide a diagnosis or assess the activity of the disease. From July 1979 to May 1983 open lung biopsy was performed in 101 patients through a limited submammary incision. Twenty seven patients had undergone prior invasive investigations and 27 were taking corticosteroids at the time of biopsy. In 92 patients the histological appearances after open lung biopsy were sufficiently specific to permit diagnosis. Respiratory tract infection occurred in six patients and in eight there was some superficial infection of the wound. These complications were more frequent in patients taking corticosteroids but the difference was not statistically significant. The chest drain was removed usually on the first postoperative day. In three critically ill patients an air leak occurred after removal of the drain, requiring formal surgical re-exploration and drainage in two cases and a brief period of intercostal drainage in the third. Four patients in the series died. All had severe pre-existing lung disease; in three open lung biopsy was performed in the late stages of severe, rapidly progressive lung disease eluding diagnosis; the fourth patient, who had massive pulmonary fibrosis from asbestos lung disease, developed a respiratory tract infection and died from progressive respiratory failure. Open lung biopsy can be performed with minimal morbidity and a high diagnostic yield. The approach used in this series provides a safe and reliable operation with good cosmetic results.
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