Which physical findings suggest subacute infective endocarditis (IE)?

Updated: Jan 03, 2019
  • Author: John L Brusch, MD, FACP; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
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Approximately 3-15% of patients with subacute IE (primarily elderly and chronically ill individuals) have normal or subnormal temperatures. The vast majority of patients have detectable heart murmurs. The presence of a murmur is so common (99% of cases) that its absence should cause clinicians to reconsider the diagnosis of IE. The major exception is right-sided IE, in which only one third of patients have a detectable murmur.

Because many of these murmurs are hemodynamically insignificant and have been present for years, their role in the patient’s illness may be underestimated. The saying "a changing murmur is extremely helpful in diagnosing subacute IE" is a myth. Only 15% do so early in the course of infection.

The peripheral lesions of subacute IE are observed in only approximately 20% of patients, compared with 85% in the preantibiotic era. Currently, the most common of these is petechiae. They may occur on the palpebral conjunctivae, the dorsa of the hands and feet, the anterior chest and abdominal walls, the oral mucosa, and the soft palate.

Subungual hemorrhages (ie, splinter hemorrhages) are linear and red. They are usually caused by workplace trauma to the hands and feet rather than by valvular infection. Hemorrhages that do not extend for the entire length of the nail are more likely the result of infection rather than trauma.

Osler nodes are smallish tender nodules that range from red to purple and are located primarily in the pulp spaces of the terminal phalanges of the fingers and toes, soles of the feet, and the thenar and hypothenar eminences of the hands. Their appearance is often preceded by neuropathic pain. They last from hours to several days. They remain tender for a maximum of 2 days. The underlying mechanism is probably the circulating immunocomplexes of subacute IE. They have been described in various noninfectious vasculitides.

Clubbing of fingers and toes was found almost universally, but it is now observed in less than 10% of patients. It primarily occurs in those patients who have an extended course of untreated IE.

The arthritis associated with subacute IE is asymmetrical and is limited to 1-3 joints. Clinically, it resembles the joint changes found in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, Reiter syndrome, or Lyme disease. The fluid is usually sterile.

Splenomegaly is observed more commonly in patients with long-standing subacute disease. It may persist long after successful therapy.

Roth spots are retinal hemorrhages with pale centers. The Litten sign represents cotton-wool exudates.

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