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Ground glass opacity on CT scanning of the chest: What does it mean?

Jannette Collins, MD and Eric J. Stern, MD

round glass opacity (GGO) is described as a hazy increased attenuation of lung, with preservation of bronchial and vascular margins; it is caused by partial lling of air spaces, interstitial thickening, partial collapse of alveoli, normal expiration, or increased capillary blood volume.1 GGO is a nonspecic nding, and the differential diagnosis of the many causes of GGO can be lengthy. An ABCs approach and a pattern approach to the interpretation of GGO on HRCT scanning of the lungs have previously been described.2,3 This paper provides an abbreviated review of the physiologic correlates of the HRCT scan ndings of GGO, focusing on inltrative processes and their different GGO patterns of presentation. GGO can be patchy, resulting in a mosaic pattern of lung attenuation. Such a pattern can be seen in inltrative lung disease, airway abnormalities (e.g., asthma, bronchiolitis obliterans), and chronic pulmonary vascular disease (e.g., chronic thromboembolic disease).4 The distinction between these three entities can be made by observing the size of the pulmonary vessels in the area of increased lung attenuation (increased in both airway disease and vascular disease, but not in inltrative disease), and by examining air trapping on expiratory scans (indicating airway disease) (gure 1).
Dr. Collins is in the Department of Radiology at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, in Madison, WI. Dr. Stern is in the Department of Radiology at Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington in Seattle, WA.

Pitfalls in the interpretation of GGO on CT scanning

As recognition of GGO is based on a subjective assessment of lung attenuation, it is important to understand the parameters that can interfere with lung density and make attenuation measurements unreliable.5,6 Window widths and levels that are too narrow can erroneously create the appearance of GGO by articially blooming small structures. In evaluating for GGO, collimation ideally should be 1.0 to 1.5 mm. True GGO can not always be visualized with a thicker collimation because of volume averaging, and a thicker collimation sometimes results in a pseudo-GGO pattern. GGO is therefore best imaged with high-resolution CT (HRCT). Lung attenuation normally increases homogeneously with expiration. This increased attenuation can obscure underlying pathologic GGO. Furthermore, if the expiratory nature of the

examination is not recognized, an erroneous interpretation of pathologic GGO can be made. Cardiac and respiratory motion also can create pseudo-GGO, which can be distinguished from pathologic GGO by recognizing the blurring and double images of vessels and ssures. GGO in the gravity dependent portions of the lungs is often seen as a result of microatelectasis, which can be differentiated from pathologic GGO by re-scanning the area of question with the patient in the prone position.

Inltrative processes resulting in GGO

Many patterns of distribution of ground glass opacity can be seen on HRCT of the lungs. It is important to emphasize that most such disease processes can and do result in more than one pattern, often simultaneously; the patterns change depending upon the acuity or chronicity of the disease

FIGURE 1. Asthma. Image shows a 20-year-old woman with wheezing and shortness of breath responsive to bronchodilator treatment. (A) Inspiratory HRCT (1.0 mm collimation) was normal. (B) Expiratory HRCT (1.0 mm collimation) shows a mosaic pattern of lung attenuation. The areas of increased attenuation represent normal lung during expiration, while the adjacent abnormal lucent areas of lung represent air trapping. This pattern of air trapping on expiratory scanning, without associated abnormalities, is seen most often with obliterative bronchiolitis and asthma (small airways diseases), and should be differentiated from inltrative processes where areas of GGO are seen on the inspiratory images and mosaic attenuation is not accentuated on expiratory imaging.



Causes of a diffuse pattern of GGO on CT scanning Acute rejection of lung transplantation Adult respiratory distress syndrome Edema Extrinsic allergic alveolitis Hemorrhage Infectious pneumonia Table 1
FIGURE 2. Acute rejection of lung transplantation. A 38-year-old man presents with increasing shortness of breath 3 weeks after bilateral lung transplantation. HRCT (1.0 mm collimation) shows diffuse bilateral GGO, correlating with a pathologic diagnosis of severe acute rejection. FIGURE 4. Extrinsic allergic alveolitis. Imaging of a 50-year-old farmer with an acute onset of increasing shortness of breath. HRCT (1.0 mm collimation) shows diffuse bilateral GGO, correlating with the clinical diagnosis of acute farmers lung.

process. We have categorized the etiologies of GGO according to the most commonly seen patterns of distribution: Diffuse pattern of GGODisease processes commonly resulting in a diffuse pattern of GGO on CT scanning are listed in table 1. Acute rejection is common after lung transplantation. However, differentiating between reperfusion edema, infection, and rejection can be difficult both clinically and radiographically. HRCT is reported to be 65% sensitive and 85% specic in making the diagnosis of acute rejection in the lung transplant population.7 The only signicant HRCT nding in acute rejection (seen in 65% of these patients) is GGO, which is patchy and localized in mild rejection and widespread in severe rejection (gure 2). The main differential diagnosis in this group of patients is cytomegalovirus pneumonia, which can have an identical radiographic appearance. Adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a form of nonhydrostatic pulmonary edema, characterized by leaky capillary membranes. These leaks lead to extravasation of protein-rich uid into the interstitial and alveolar spaces of the lung. Among the common causes of ARDS are aspiration, contusion, smoke inhalation, and sepsis. CT scan ndings of ARDS include bilateral and gravitydependent lung opacities.8 Early in the course of ARDS, all patients demonstrate GGO on CT, which persists on follow-up CT in 50% of patients (gure 3).9 Both cardiogenic and non-cardiogenic edema occurs when the capacity of the lung lymphatics to drain capillary transudate is exceeded. Etiologies include venous and lymphatic obstruction, increased capillary permeability, and hypoproteinemia.5 HRCT scan nd-

FiGURE 3. Early adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). A 12-year-old boy with acute shortness of breath and hypoxemia, requiring intubation and mechanical ventilation after receiving chemotherapy for lymphoma. HRCT (1.0 mm collimation) shows diffuse bilateral GGO. Pulmonary artery wedge pressure was normal, and transbronchial lung biopsy and bronchoalveolar lavage showed no evidence of infection. The patient went on to develop severe ARDS with complications of barotrauma.

FIGURE 5. Diffuse alveolar hemorrhage. A 45-year-old man presents with increasing shortness of breath 2 months after bone marrow transplantation. Helical CT scan (10 mm collimation) shows diffuse bilateral GGO.

ings in patients with hydrostatic pulmonary edema include areas of GGO, interlobular septal thickening, peribronchovascular interstitial thickening, increased vascular caliber, pleural effusion, and thickening of ssures.10 Extrinsic allergic alveolitis, also called hypersensitivity pneumonitis, is a complex immunologic reaction by the lung, primarily to inhaled organic antigens. The clinical presentation may be acute, subacute, or chronic. HRCT scan ndings will vary with the stage of disease. In the acute and subacute phases, ndings include GGO (in 82%), small nodules (55%), a reticular pattern (36%), and air trapping.11 GGO

correlates histologically with mononuclear cell inltration of the alveolar walls.11 The distribution of GGO can be diffuse, patchy, or centrilobular (gure 4) in this condition. Pulmonary hemorrhage can be diffuse, patchy, or focal, depending on the underlying cause, of which there are many.12 In the acute phase, CT scans show consolidation or GGO (gure 5). In the subacute phase, CT shows 1- to 3-mm nodules that are distributed in a uniform fashion, commonly accompanied by GGO and interlobular septal thickening.13 Infectious pneumonia of any cause (e.g., bacterial, viral, mycobacterial, fungal, and parasitic) can cause GGO to appear on HRCT scans. A diffuse pattern of GGO in the absence of associated CT scan ndings is a characteristic presentation for cytomegalovirus pneumonia (CMV) and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). CMV is the most common viral pathogen to cause substantial mor-



Causes of a patchy pattern of GGO on CT scanning Acute rejection of lung transplantation Adult respiratory distress syndrome Bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia (BOOP) Bronchioloalveolar cell carcinoma Extrinsic allergic alveolitis Hemorrhage Infectious pneumonia Pulmonary alveolar proteinosis

Table 2

bidity and mortality in patients with AIDS,14 and is a relatively common complication in organ transplant recipients. In patients with AIDS and CMV pneumonia, CT scanning will show GGO, dense consolidation, bronchial wall thickening or bronchiectasis, and interstitial reticulation without air-space disease (although GGO may occur in isolation).15 In organ transplant recipients with CMV pneumonia, CT scanning shows small nodules, consolidation, GGO, and irregular lines (gure 6). The presence of an isolated ground glass inltrate without additional ndings in patients with AIDS is highly suggestive of PCP(gure 7).16 Patchy GGO patternsMany of the causes of a patchy distribution of GGO on HRCT scanning, listed in table 2, may also result in a diffuse pattern of GGO. Pulmonary alveolar proteinosis is a disease of the lung that results in lling in of the alveoli by a periodic acidSchiff-positive proteinaceous material that is rich in lipid.17,18 HRCT scanning of this disorder shows GGO, with an overlying branching pattern of white linear structures forming geometric shapes and outlining polygonal, triangular, and square forms.19,20 This pattern is often referred to as crazy paving, and is characteristic, but not pathognomonic, of the diagnosis of alveolar proteinosis (gure 8).21 Other processes that can show a crazy paving pattern at HRCT scanning include ARDS, lipoid pneumonia, and PCP. Focal GGO patternsThere is overlap between causes of diffuse, patchy, and focal distributions of GGO (table 3) with chest CT scanning. When pulmonary hemorrhage is due to focal neo-

FIGURE 6. Cytomegalovirus pneumonia. Imaging of a 42-year-old man with acute respiratory symptoms 3 months after bone marrow transplantation. Helical CT scan (10 mm collimation) shows diffuse bilateral GGO, areas of septal thickening (straight arrows), and ill-dened small nodular opacities (curved arrows). Small bilateral pleural effusions are present.

FIGURE 8. Lipoid pneumonia. Image is of a 46-year-old man with a 6-month history of mild dyspnea and chronic rhinitis, treated with oily nose drops. HRCT (1.0 mm collimation) shows bilateral patchy areas of GGO with a background of intralobular and interlobular septal thickening, producing the crazy paving pattern first described with alveolar proteinosis. (Figure courtesy of Tomas Franquet, MD, Barcelona, Spain.)

FIGURE 7. Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in a 39-year-old man with AIDS. HRCT (1.5 mm collimation) shows patchy bilateral areas of GGO and a small cystic lesion in the left upper lobe (arrows).

plasm, trauma, or pulmonary infarction, a focal pattern of opacity results. Certain infections, such as lobar pneumonia, also may result in a focal pattern of GGO. Bronchoalveolar lavage is a procedure used to diagnose pulmonary diseases and to identify predictors of prognosis. The technique involves injection of normal saline through a bronchoscope that is generally wedged into the lingular or middle lobe bronchus. Most, but not all of the uid is aspirated back into the scope and examined for inammatory and immune mediator cells and specic proteins.22 The residual uid demonstrates a segmental or lobar distribution of GGO on CT scanning, which should suggest the possibility of recent bronchoalveolar lavage, especially if the GGO is observed in the right middle lobe or lingula.5 The halo pattern of GGOA halo of GGO occasionally can be seen around a nodule or focal area of lung

FIGURE 9. Invasive aspergillosis. Image is of a 49-year-old man with acute myelogenous leukemia and fever. Helical CT scan (7.0 mm collimation) shows a triangular area of consolidation abutting the peripheral right lung and involving both the right middle and lower lobes. This distribution and shape is characteristic of hemorrhagic infarction caused by the angioinvasive fungal agent aspergillosis. The surrounding GGO, creating the halo sign, represents hemorrhage and is highly specic for early invasive aspergillosis in leukemic patients.

consolidation. Table 4 lists the processes known to produce the halo sign. It was rst reported as a sign of early invasive pulmonary aspergillosis in patients with leukemia.23 The GGO represents a
Causes of a focal pattern of GGO on CT scanning Bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia (BOOP) Bronchoalveolar lavage Bronchioloalveolar cell carcinoma Hemorrhage Pulmonary infection Table 3



Causes of a peripheral pattern of GGO on CT scanning Bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia (BOOP) Collagen vascular disease Contusion Desquamative interstitial pneumonitis Drug toxicity Eosinophilic pneumonia Fibrosis Sarcoidosis Table 5

FIGURE 10. Bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia. Image is of a 50-year-old man with increasing shortness of breath after bilateral lung transplantation. HRCT (1.0 mm collimation) shows bilateral patchy areas of GGO in both a bronchovascular and peripheral distribution.

FIGURE 12. Desquamative interstitial pneumonitis. Image is of a 77-year-old man with a 3-month history of increasing shortness of breath. HRCT (1.5 mm collimation) shows bilateral areas of GGO and consolidation in a peripheral distribution without evidence of honeycombing or traction bronchiectasis.

FIGURE 11. Contusions. Image is of a 22year-old man involved in a motor vehicle accident. Helical CT scan (10 mm collimation) shows bilateral areas of GGO and consolidation in a typical peripheral non-segmental distribution. There are both posterior and anterior rib fractures adjacent to the sites of contusion.

peripheral ring of hemorrhage or hemorrhagic infarction surrounding target lesions of pulmonary aspergillosis (gure 9). Several infectious and noninfectious causes of the CT halo sign have since been reported.24 In most patients, hemorrhagic nodules can be distinguished from nonhemorrhagic nodules by the presence of a halo of GGO. Another cause of focal GGO, or a nodule with a surrounding halo of GGO, is the post-biopsy pseudo nodule. These pseudo nodules have been described in
Causes of a halo pattern of GGO on CT scanning Invasive pulmonary aspergillosis Neoplasm, hemorrhagic Post-biopsy pseudo nodule Table 4

patients who have undergone lung transplantation and transbronchial lung biopsy,25 but they may be seen in any patient after lung biopsy. A peripheral pattern of GGO Processes that are known to result in a peripheral lung distribution of GGO with HRCT scanning are listed in table 5. This particular distribution pattern can be very helpful in narrowing the differential diagnosis, especially when combined with other clinical data and associated CT scan ndings. Bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia (BOOP) is a disease characterized histologically by the presence of granulation tissue plugs within respiratory bronchioles and alveolar ducts, and organizing pneumonia extending into the surrounding alveoli.26 CT scans show patchy GGO (in 8 to 75% of patients), nodules, or areas of consolidation with a predominantly peripheral (50% of patients), bilateral, and nonsegmental distribution (gure 10).27-29 Collagen vascular diseases are multisystem disorders characterized by vascular changes, brosis, and inammation of connective tissue. Specic diseases include progressive systemic sclerosis (scleroderma), systemic lupus erythematosus, polymyositis/dermatomyositis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjogrens syndrome. GGO is seen on CT scanning in 63 to 100% of these patients,30 and is a sign of active inammation in the absence of signicant honeycombing, bronchiectasis, or other signs of lung brosis.31 Pulmonary contusion results from trauma to the chest wall and lung, with

bleeding into the air spaces and lung interstitium. Generally, the cause is a compression injury with signicant kinetic energy absorption adjacent to the site of chest wall injury. The CT scan appearance of lung contusion is that of ill-dened areas of GGO, consolidation, or both, usually with a peripheral, nonanatomic distribution (gure 11).32,33 Desquamative interstitial pneumonitis is characterized by alveolar lling with macrophages. The HRCT scan ndings consist of GGO with a lower lung zone (73%) and a peripheral (59%) predominant distribution (gure 12). Usual interstitial pneumonitis, or idiopathic pulmonary brosis, results in a similar distribution of GGO on CT scanning but typically with more areas of honeycombing and traction bronchiectasis (gure 13). Pulmonary toxicity has been associated with numerous drugs and a variety of radiographic and CT patterns. CT scanning shows nodular areas of GGO and consolidation, often with a peripheral distribution.35,36 Pulmonary eosinophilia occurs with a variety of conditions or diseases, or can be idiopathic. Chronic idiopathic eosinophilic pneumonia is characterized by multiple dense areas of opacity on chest radiographs and CT scans. In one study of patients with chronic eosinophilic pneumonia, the most common HRCT nding was GGO, usually adjacent to areas of consolidation, with a peripheral distribution.37 Acute idiopathic eosinophilic pneumonia is characterized by diffuse GGO and micronodules on chest radiographs and CT scans, often in a bronchovascular distribution.38



FIGURE 13. Usual interstitial pneumonitis. Image is of a 78-year-old man with chronic progressive shortness of breath. HRCT (1.5 mm collimation) shows GGO associated with honeycombing and traction bronchiectasis in a peripheral and bibasilar distribution. In this case, the GGO likely reects microbrosis.

FIGURE 14. Sarcoidosis. Image is of a 33year-old asymptomatic woman. HRCT (1.0 mm collimation) shows bilateral patchy areas of GGO. There were no enlarged lymph nodes or parenchymal nodules.

Sarcoidosis is a multisystemic disorder of unknown cause characterized by the presence of noncaseating granulomatous inammation affecting various sites of the body, with a propensity to involve the respiratory tract. The most common HRCT scan ndings of pulmonary sarcoidosis are irregularly thickened bronchovascular bundles (88%) and small nodules along vessels (50%).39 GGO is present in 75% of patients with sarcoidosis, which corresponds histologically with many granulomatous lesions, with or without perigranulomatous brosis, in the interstitium and alveolar septa around small vessels. Sarcoidosis can result in a predominantly peripheral distribution of GGO and/or consolidation, or a diffuse or patchy pattern of only GGO (gures 14 and 15). Bronchovascular and centrilobular patterns of GGOProcesses that can result in GGO in a predominantly bronchovascular distribution include eosinophilic pneumonia and sarcoidosis. A predominantly centrilobular distribution of GGO has been described with both extrinsic allergic alveolitis and respiratory bronchiolitis. All reported cases of respiratory bronchiolitis have occurred in cigarette smokers.40-42 In the majority of these patients, HRCT shows GGO, which is often extensive, as the predominant nding.43 Pigmented macrophages within respiratory bronchioles and adjacent alveolar ducts and alveoli lead to the bronchovascular distribution of GGO.

FIGURE 15. Sarcoidosis. Image is of a 25year-old asymptomatic man. HRCT (1.0 mm collimation) shows bilateral patchy areas of GGO in a bronchovascular distribution, some showing air bronchograms (arrows).

of the chest, correlating histologically with partial lling of air spaces, inammatory or brotic interstitial thickening, or increased capillary blood volume. GGO also can represent mosaic perfusion secondary to chronic vascular disease, or air trapping from small airways disease. It is important to correlate the HRCT pattern of GGO with clinical history and associated HRCT scan ndings in developing a differential diagnosis. AR

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