Cavitary lesions in the lungs are gas or fluid filled compartments in an area of pathology, such as a consolidation or a mass. Interestingly, a specific set of pathologies are known to cause this specific finding. Cavitary lesions can be detected on a chest x-ray, as is shown below.
Legend: Red Ellipse–cavity (with margins), Blue Ellipse–air-fluid level
The lesion practically jumps out of the picture on the AP view, but the colored circles are there just to point out the entire area of pathology (blue) and the cavity within (red). The pathology is a bit harder to see on lateral view, but the cavity has an air-fluid level that is easily identified as a vertical line separating a lighter fluid filled portion from an air filled portion. This air-fluid interface is often called a meniscus. You might remember being in chemistry class and measuring water out of tall beakers where the water stuck to the sides of the glass creating a concave meniscus. The surface tension of water allows it to stick to both itself and surrounding surfaces. If you look close enough, you’ll notice that the air-fluid level in the image above, best visualized in the AP view, has a slightly concave shape because the liquid at the bottom is sticking to the solid sides of the cavity.
The underlying pathophysiology is an interesting concept to understand when discussing cavitary lesions. A cavity can form in lung tissue for various reasons, but infection is the major underlying cause. Abscesses are localized collections of pathogens, fluid and immune system components that are walled off from the surrounding tissue, therefore creating a fluid-filled cavity. Tuberculosis is a disease process that involves caseous necrosis, which results in coagulation of cell proteins and liquefaction of cellular components. Eventually, the liquid portion drains out through the lymph system or through the bronchi, leaving air pockets behind. Necrotizing pneumonia and non-infectious processes such as ischemia and neoplasm can also cause a similar picture. Rheumatologic diseases such as granulomatosis with polyangitis and sarcoidosis also cause cavitary lesions by causing localized inflammation, which in turn leads to an area of increased mass, which then in turn can cavitate once the inflammatory reaction recruits fluid to the area. In other words, most of these processes, even if they aren’t inherently related to one another, all converge on the same mechanism of causing a localized area of inflammation.
With such a wide array of categories to choose from, it is perhaps more important than usual to contextualize the radiographic image with information about the patient.
This particular patient is a 30 year old male who presents with a cough. He has been traveling around the world to multiple continents including Sub-Saharan Africa. The extensive travel history, including to continents with rare infectious diseases leaves infection at the top of the differential. Things like Staphylococcal pneumonia, fungal infections and even amebiasis are possible because of the patient’s travel history. For a complete list of the infectious causes of a cavitary lesion, check the first two references at the bottom of the page.
Gadkowski LB, Stout JE. Cavitary Pulmonary Disease. Clinical Microbiology Reviews 2008;21(2):305-333. doi:10.1128/CMR.00060-07. (LINK)
Ryu, Jay H. et al. Cystic and Cavitary Lung Diseases: Focal and Diffuse. Mayo Clinic Proceedings , Volume 78 , Issue 6 , 744 – 752. (LINK)
Good pathologic image of caseous necrosis with resulting cavitation
Image Contributor: James Luz, MD
Author: Jaymin Patel