Symptoms to Diagnosis

A 66-year-old man with abnormal thyroid function tests

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Release date: October 1, 2019
Expiration date: September 30, 2020
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A 66-year-old man presented to the emergency department with increasing shortness of breath and productive cough, which had begun 5 days earlier. Three years previously, he had been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

One week before the current presentation, he developed a sore throat, rhinorrhea, and nasal congestion, and the shortness of breath had started 2 days after that. Although he could speak in sentences, he was breathless even at rest. His dyspnea was associated with noisy breathing and cough productive of yellowish sputum; there was no hemoptysis. He reported fever, but he had no chills, night sweats, chest pain, or paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea. The review of other systems was unremarkable.

His COPD was known to be mild, in Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) grade 1, group A. His postbronchodilator ratio of forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) to forced vital capacity (FVC) was less than 0.70, and his FEV1 was 84% of predicted. Apart from mild intermittent cough with white sputum, his COPD had been under good control with inhaled ipratropium 4 times daily and inhaled albuterol as needed. He said he did not have shortness of breath except when hurrying on level ground or walking up a slight hill (Modified Medical Research Council dyspnea scale grade 1; COPD Assessment Test score < 10). In the last 3 years, he had 2 exacerbations of COPD, 1 year apart, both requiring oral prednisone and antibiotic therapy.

Other relevant history included hypertension and dyslipidemia of 15-year duration, for which he was taking candesartan 16 mg twice daily and atorvastatin 20 mg daily. He was compliant with his medications.

Though he usually received an influenza vaccine every year, he did not get it the previous year. Also, 3 years previously, he received the 23-valent pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23), and the year before that he received the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13). In addition, he was immunized against herpes zoster and tetanus.

The patient had smoked 1 pack per day for the past 38 years. His primary care physician had advised him many times to quit smoking. He had enrolled in a smoking cessation program 2 years previously, in which he received varenicline in addition to behavioral counseling in the form of motivational interviewing and a telephone quit-line. Nevertheless, he continued to smoke.

He was a retired engineer. He did not drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.


On physical examination, the patient was sitting up in bed, leaning forward. He was alert and oriented but was breathing rapidly and looked sick. He had no cyanosis, clubbing, pallor, or jaundice. His blood pressure was 145/90 mm Hg, heart rate 110 beats per minute and regular, respiratory rate 29 breaths per minute, and oral temperature 38.1°C (100.6°F). His oxygen saturation was 88% while breathing room air. His body mass index was 27.1 kg/m2.

His throat was mildly congested. His neck veins were flat, and there were no carotid bruits. His thyroid examination was normal, without goiter, nodules, or tenderness.

Intercostal retractions were noted around the anterolateral costal margins. He had no chest wall deformities. Chest expansion was reduced bilaterally. There was hyperresonance bilaterally. Expiratory wheezes were heard over both lungs, without crackles.

His heart had no murmurs or added sounds. There was no lower-limb edema or swelling. The rest of his physical examination was unremarkable.

Table 1. Initial laboratory results
Chest radiography showed hyperinflation without infiltrates. Electrocardiography showed normal sinus rhythm, with a peaked P wave (P pulmonale) and evidence of right ventricular hypertrophy, but no ischemic changes.

Results of initial laboratory testing are shown in Table 1.

Assessment: A 66-year-old man with GOLD grade 1, group A COPD, presenting with a severe exacerbation, most likely due to viral bronchitis.


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