What is the role of CT scanning in the diagnosis of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)?

Updated: Jun 25, 2021
  • Author: David J Cennimo, MD, FAAP, FACP, FIDSA, AAHIVS; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
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Answer

Chest CT scanning in patients with COVID-19–associated pneumonia usually shows ground-glass opacification, possibly with consolidation. Some studies have reported that abnormalities on chest CT scans are usually bilateral, involve the lower lobes, and have a peripheral distribution. Pleural effusion, pleural thickening, and lymphadenopathy have also been reported, although with less frequency. [53, 119, 120]

Bai et al reported the following common chest CT scanning features among 201 patients with CT abnormalities and positive RT-PCR results for COVID-19: [121]

  • Peripheral distribution (80%)
  • Ground-glass opacity (91%)
  • Fine reticular opacity (56%)
  • Vascular thickening (59%)

Less-common features on chest CT scanning included the following: [121]

  • Central and peripheral distribution (14%)
  • Pleural effusion (4.1%)
  • Lymphadenopathy (2.7%)

The American College of Radiology (ACR) recommends against using CT scanning for screening or diagnosis but instead reserving it for management in hospitalized patients. [122]

At least two studies have reported on manifestations of infection in apparently asymptomatic individuals. Hu et al reported on 24 asymptomatic infected persons in whom chest CT scanning revealed ground-glass opacities/patchy shadowing in 50% of cases. [123] Wang et al reported on 55 patients with asymptomatic infection, two-thirds of whom had evidence of pneumonia as revealed by CT scanning. [124]

Progression of CT abnormalities

Mingzhi et al recommend high-resolution CT scanning and reported the following CT changes over time in patients with COVID-19 among 3 Chinese hospitals: [125]

  • Early phase: Multiple small patchy shadows and interstitial changes begin to emerge in a distribution beginning near the pleura or bronchi rather than the pulmonary parenchyma.
  • Progressive phase: The lesions enlarge and increase, evolving to multiple ground-glass opacities and infiltrating consolidation in both lungs.
  • Severe phase: Massive pulmonary consolidations occur, while pleural effusion is rare.
  • Dissipative phase: Ground-glass opacities and pulmonary consolidations are absorbed completely. The lesions begin evolving into fibrosis. [125]
Axial chest CT demonstrates patchy ground-glass op Axial chest CT demonstrates patchy ground-glass opacities with peripheral distribution.
Coronal reconstruction chest CT of the same patien Coronal reconstruction chest CT of the same patient above, showing patchy ground-glass opacities.
Axial chest CT shows bilateral patchy consolidatio Axial chest CT shows bilateral patchy consolidations (arrows), some with peripheral ground-glass opacity. Findings are in peripheral and subpleural distribution.

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