BACKGROUND: Pleural empyema is a well known complication of pneumonia. Attitudes differ, however, about the best treatment of this condition and the place of drainage, early operation, and local antibiotics. METHODS: In a retrospective study 94 consecutive patients with verified empyema caused by pneumonia were admitted to the department of either pulmonary medicine or thoracic surgery. Treatment was either by a lavage regimen (daily thoracocentesis, saline rinse, systemic antibiotics, and in some patients instillation of local antibiotics) in the medical ward (51 patients) or by tube drainage and systemic antibiotics in the surgical unit (43 patients). RESULTS: The stay in hospital was significantly shorter in the medically treated patients than in the surgical group--2.3 v 5.0 weeks respectively. Furthermore, pleurocutaneous and bronchopleural fistulas developed more frequently in patients treated by tube drainage than in those treated with the thoracocentesis regimen alone (13 (30%) v 5 (10%) and 6 (14%) v 2 (4%) for each complication respectively). The overall mortality was 8.5% with no differences between treatments. CONCLUSIONS: Treatment with a lavage regimen plus local and systemic antibiotics seems to be associated with a lower frequency of complications and a shorter duration of hospital stay than tube drainage and systemic antibiotics. These results should be confirmed by a prospective, randomised study.
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