BACKGROUND: A study was undertaken to determine if there are differences in the radiological appearances at presentation between pulmonary infections caused by Mycobacterium kansasii and Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Correct recognition of the organism has important implications with regard to initial therapy and contact tracing. METHODS: The initial chest radiographs of 28 patients with pulmonary M kansasii infection were compared with those of 56 age, sex, and race matched patients with M tuberculosis infection. All patients in both groups were culture positive and none was known to be HIV positive. The radiographs were analysed independently by two radiologists who were unaware of the causative organism. RESULTS: Radiographic abnormalities in patients with M kansasii infection were more frequently unilateral and right side predominant, while those with tuberculosis more frequently involved a lower lobe. Air space shadowing involving more than one bronchopulmonary segment and pleural effusions were seen less frequently in M kansasii infection (four of 28 (14%) versus 30 of 56 (54%) and none of 28 versus 15 of 56 (27%)). Cavitation (21 of 28 (75%) versus 34 of 56 (61%) was seen to a similar extent in patients with M kansasii infection and in those with tuberculosis. Cavities tended to be smaller in patients with M kansasii infection (p < 0.01). CONCLUSIONS: Differences are seen in the radiographic appearances of pulmonary infection caused by M kansasii and M tuberculosis. These differences are not sufficient to allow a positive diagnosis on the basis of radiographic findings alone, but the presence of a pleural effusion or lower lobe involvement makes M kansasii infection very unlikely.
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