Importance: Recognition of active tuberculosis (TB) in its earliest stages could reduce morbidity and prevent advancement to transmissible disease. Little is published about the occurrence and presentation of sputum culture-negative pulmonary TB (PTB), an early paucibacillary but often underrecognized disease state. Objective: To assess differences between culture-negative and culture-positive PTB regarding occurrence, clinical presentation, radiographic findings, demographics, and comorbidities. Design, Setting, and Participants: Cross-sectional study in which surveillance data of adult patients with PTB reported to the New York City Department of Health in New York, New York, from 2011 through 2013, ie, years for which demographic, clinical, and radiographic data were collected. Patients were aged 18 years or older, had signs of pulmonary disease, and had mycobacterial sputum culture results; those with HIV coinfection or a TB diagnosis within 2 years prior to presentation were excluded. Culture-negative PTB was defined as clinical and radiographic presentation consistent with TB, 3 negative results on sputum culture, and improvement with antituberculous treatment. The analyses were performed between 2015 and 2016; notably, the proportion of reported patients with culture-negative PTB has remained consistent during the past 2 decades. Main Outcomes and Measures: The occurrence of culture-negative PTB among all patients with PTB was calculated, and demographics, comorbidities, symptoms, and radiographic findings were compared between culture-negative and culture-positive PTB. Results: Of the 796 patients with PTB (median [interquartile range] age, 41 [29-54] years; 499 [63%] men) who met criteria for analysis, 116 (15%) had negative results on sputum culture. Patients with culture-negative PTB compared with culture-positive PTB were less frequently male (53% vs 64%; P = .03) and presented with a significantly lower frequency of cough (68% vs 89%; P < .001), weight loss (39% vs 51%; P = .03), and cavitation on both chest radiograph (7% vs 28%; P < .001) and chest computed tomographic scan (26% vs 59%; P < .001). Conclusions and Relevance: Given the lack of criterion-standard test confirmation and the relative paucity of symptoms and radiological abnormalities, culture-negative PTB is likely underdiagnosed and its occurrence underestimated globally. Awareness of these findings, enhanced diagnostic approaches, and, ideally, better biomarkers could improve detection and treatment of this early disease and reduce the development of transmissible TB.
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