Symptoms to Diagnosis

Shortness of breath, fever, cough, and more in an elderly woman

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Release date: September 1, 2018
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An 87-year-old woman was brought to the intensive care unit with worsening shortness of breath on exertion, fatigue, orthopnea, paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea, lower extremity swelling, subjective fever, productive cough, and rhinorrhea over the last week. She reported no chest pain, lightheadedness, or palpitations. Her medical history included the following:

  • Coronary artery disease requiring coronary artery bypass grafting
  • Ischemic cardiomyopathy
  • Severe mitral regurgitation
  • Moderate tricuspid regurgitation
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Cardiac arrest with recurrent ventricular tachycardia requiring an implanted cardioverter-defibrillator and amiodarone therapy
  • Hypothyroidism requiring levothyroxine
  • Asthma with a moderate obstructive pattern: forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) 60% of predicted, forced vital capacity (FVC) 2.06 L, FEV1/FVC 54%, diffusing capacity for carbon monoxide (DLCO) 72% of predicted with positive bronchodilator response
  • Long-standing essential thrombocythemia treated with hydroxyurea.

Before admission, she had been reliably taking guideline-directed heart failure therapy as well as amiodarone for her recurrent ventricular tachycardia. Her levothyroxine had recently been increased as well.

Table 1. The patient's laboratory values
Physical examination. On admission, her blood pressure was 95/53 mm Hg, heart rate 73 beats per minute, temperature 36.7ºC (98.1ºF), and oxygen saturation 81% requiring supplemental oxygen 15 L/min by nonrebreather face mask. Physical examination revealed elevated jugular venous pressure, bibasilar crackles, lower extremity edema, and a grade 3 of 6 holosystolic murmur both at the left sternal border and at the apex radiating to the axilla. There was no evidence of wheezing or pulsus paradoxus.

Initial laboratory evaluation revealed abnormal values (Table 1).

Electrocardiography showed sinus rhythm and an old left bundle branch block.

Chest radiography showed cardiomegaly, bilateral pleural effusions, and pulmonary edema.


1. Based on the available information, which of the following is the most likely cause of this patient’s clinical presentation?

  • Acute decompensated heart failure
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Exacerbation of asthma
  • Exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Heart failure is a clinical diagnosis based on careful history-taking and physical examination. Major criteria include paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea, orthopnea, elevated jugular venous pressure, pulmonary crackles, a third heart sound, cardiomegaly, pulmonary edema, and weight loss of more than 4.5 kg with diuretic therapy.1 N-terminal pro-B-type natriuretic peptide (NT-proBNP) is also an effective marker of acute decompensated heart failure in the proper clinical setting.2

Our patient’s elevated jugular venous pressure, bibasilar crackles, lower extremity edema, chest radiography findings consistent with pulmonary edema, markedly elevated NT-proBNP, history of orthopnea, paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea, and dyspnea on exertion were most consistent with acute decompensated heart failure. Her cough and subjective fevers were thought to be due to an upper respiratory tract viral infection.

Pulmonary embolism causes pleuritic chest pain, dyspnea, and, occasionally, elevated troponin. The most common feature on electrocardiography is sinus tachycardia; nonspecific ST-segment and T-wave changes may also be seen.3

Although pulmonary embolism remained in the differential diagnosis, our patient’s lack of typical features of pulmonary embolism made this less likely.

Asthma is characterized by recurrent airflow obstruction and bronchial hyperresponsiveness.4 Asthma exacerbations present with wheezing, tachypnea, tachycardia, and pulsus paradoxus.5

Despite her previous asthma diagnosis, our patient’s lack of typical features of asthma exacerbation made this diagnosis unlikely.

COPD exacerbations present with increased dyspnea, cough, sputum production, wheezing, lung resonance to percussion, and distant heart sounds, and are characterized by airflow obstruction.6,7

Although our patient presented with cough and dyspnea, she had no history of COPD and her other signs and symptoms (elevated jugular venous pressure, elevated NT-proBNP, and peripheral edema) could not be explained by COPD exacerbation.


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