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5 Most Commonly Misdiagnosed Conditions in the ICU

Missed diagnoses can lead to potentially fatal errors

2. Pulmonary embolism

A sudden blockage in a lung artery

Symptoms: Patients usually have shortness of breath, chest pain and a cough.

Confused with: Symptoms can mimic those of an asthma attack, pneumonia, bronchitis or even a heart attack.

Diagnostic tests: If doctors suspect a pulmonary embolism, they can order a CT scan of the lungs. Nearly all patients with a pulmonary embolism have deep vein thrombosis, a formation of blood clots in the leg, thigh or pelvis. When patients have this condition, physicians should take precautions against the clot moving to the lungs.

Treatment: Clot-busting and blood-thinning medications are typically administered, as is supplemental oxygen if blood oxygen levels are low. In rare cases, surgery is required to remove the clot.

3. Pneumonia

Inflammation of the lungs because of infection

Symptoms: People usually experience coughing, fever and chills. They may also have difficulty breathing.

Confused with: The lung infection can also be confused with asthma or even tuberculosis. Also, because different forms of pneumonia require different treatments, mixing them up can waste precious time.

Diagnostic tests: A chest x-ray is typically used to confirm a pneumonia diagnosis. A CT scan also can detect pneumonia. Doctors can listen for a rattle in the lungs or do a pulse oximetry test to gauge how much oxygen is in the blood. A sputum test can reveal the cause of the infection and the severity of the illness.

Treatment: If the infection is bacterial, antibiotics generally will help clear it. If it's a viral pneumonia, antiviral medications are administered in some cases. Supplemental oxygen is given when blood oxygen levels are low.

4. Aspergillosis

An infection or allergic reaction caused by the aspergillus fungus, which commonly grows on dead leaves

Symptoms: Typical symptoms include coughing, fever, chills, chest pain, shortness of breath and headache. The fungus is common in the environment but generally only causes problems in people who have weakened immune systems.

Confused with: Aspergillosis can look like asthma, tuberculosis or acute respiratory distress (which can develop after a trauma or a drug overdose, among other causes). It also can mimic a bacterial or viral pneumonia.

Diagnostic tests: A chest x-ray or CT scan can show a fungal mass in the lungs. A sputum test can confirm that the aspergillus fungus is to blame. Skin and blood tests can reveal whether an allergic response is at the root of the illness.

Treatment: Antifungal medications and corticosteroids often are administered. If a fungal mass is causing bleeding in the lungs, doctors may opt for surgery to remove the mass.

Next: Misdiagnosed condition No. 5: Abdominal bleeding. »

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