PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Pseudomonas spp. are Gram-negative rod bacteria commonly found in soil, ground water, plants and animals. Pseudomonal infection causes a necrotising inflammation. Between 2008 to 2012, there was a 6% decrease in the number of Pseudomonas spp. bacteraemias reported to Public Health England (PHE) compared with a 1% decrease for all bacteraemias. The overall incidence in 2012 for Pseudomonas spp. bacteraemias was 6.4 cases/100,000 population in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is the most common cause of pseudomonal infection.
- Pseudomonads include a number of true Pseudomonas species as well as many species formerly classified in the genus.
- Pseudomonads are natural residents of soil and water and may cause primary skin infections in healthy individuals, usually a self-limiting skin rash or folliculitis.
- In immunocompromised patients, systemic infections can occur which may be severe and associated with a high mortality.
- The genus Pseudomonas once comprised over 100 species but over the period of a decade many of these have been reclassified into different genera. The main groups of pseudomonads of medical interest are:
- The fluorescent or 'true' Pseudomonas: P. aeruginosa, P. fluorescens and P. putida.
- Burkholderia spp.:
- Within this genus, there are at least 30 species in the genus but the medically important species are B. cepacia, B. pseudomallei and B. mallei, which are are associated with human and animal infection.
- B. cepacia is an important pathogen of pulmonary infections in people with cystic fibrosis.
- B. pseudomallei is the causal agent of melioidosis, a life-threatening septic infection prevalent in Southeast Asia and Northern Australia.
- B. mallei causes glanders, a rare disease in horses and other species.
- Both B. pseudomallei and B. mallei must be handled in category 3 containment facilities and their exchange between laboratories is restricted.
- Delftia acidovorans:
- Occasionally found in clinical specimens and the hospital environment.
- Brevundimonas spp.:
- B. diminuta and B. vesicularis are rare in clinical specimens and of doubtful clinical significance.
- Stenotrophomonas maltophilia:
- May be clinically significant in severely immunocompromised patients and is increasingly isolated from sputum of patients with cystic fibrosis.
- The overall incidence in 2011 for S. maltophilia bacteraemia was 0.8 cases/100,000 population in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
- Sphingomonas paucimobilis:
- S. paucimobilis has been found in clinical material and recovered from hospital equipment.
The rest of this article is specific for infections caused by P. aeruginosa.
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P. aeruginosa is an opportunistic pathogen that can cause a wide range of infections, especially in immunocompromised people and people with severe burns, diabetes mellitus or cystic fibrosis. P. aeruginosa is relatively resistant to many antibiotics but effective antibiotics include imipenem , meropenem, ceftazidime, ciprofloxacin and gentamicin. Resistance to piperacillin/tazobactam increased by 3% (from 6% to 9%) between 2008 and 2012.
- P. aeruginosa is found almost anywhere but rarely affects healthy people. Most community-acquired infections are associated with prolonged contact with contaminated water.
- However, P. aeruginosa may account for about 10% of all hospital-acquired infections, particularly pneumonia, urinary tract infections, surgical wound infections and bloodstream infections.
- In hospitals, P. aeruginosa particularly contaminates moist/wet reservoirs such as respiratory equipment and indwelling catheters.
- P. aeruginosa is also a frequent cause of chronic respiratory infection in patients with cystic fibrosis. As many as 80% of cystic fibrosis patients may be colonised in the lung with P. aeruginosa and, once established, it is very resistant to antibiotic treatment.
- Pneumonia is seen in patients with immunosuppression and chronic lung disease.
- There is an increased risk in patients on mechanical ventilation, patients with neutropenia and in patients with HIV infection.
- Chronic infection of the lower respiratory tract with P. aeruginosa is common in patients with cystic fibrosis.
- There is an increased risk for people in hospitals and nursing homes. The mortality rate remains greater than 10%.
- Skin shows characteristic skin lesions (ecthyma gangrenosum), which are haemorrhagic and necrotic with surrounding erythema, and most often found in the axilla, groin or perianal area.
- May infect heart valves in intravenous drug abusers and also prosthetic heart valves.
- Thromboembolism may cause widespread infection, including in the central nervous system.
Central nervous system
- May cause meningitis and intracranial abscesses.
- Most infections result from direct spread from local structures (eg, the ear, mastoid or sinuses) but blood-borne spread may also occur.
- Common cause of chronic otitis media.
- May also cause otitis externa (including malignant otitis externa).
- In adults: common cause of bacterial keratitis, scleral abscess and endophthalmitis; risk factors include trauma and contact lenses.
- May cause ophthalmia neonatorum in neonates.
- Infection may also cause orbital cellulitis.
Bones and joints
- The spine, pelvis and sternoclavicular joints are the most common sites affected.
- Risk factors include penetrating trauma, peripheral vascular disease, intravenous drug abuse and diabetes.
- The clinical severity of infection is very variable.
- Severe pseudomonal diarrhoea may occur in neonates.
- Enteritis may present with prostration, headache, fever and diarrhoea (Shanghai fever).
- Pseudomonas spp. typhlitis most often occurs in patients with neutropenia and presents with a sudden onset of fever, abdominal distension and increasing abdominal pain.
Urinary tract infections
- Urinary tract infections are usually hospital-acquired and related to catheterisation or surgery.
- Severe infections may lead to renal abscess and bacteraemia.
- Green nail syndrome: may develop in people whose hands are frequently immersed in water.
- Secondary infections can occur in patients with eczema and tinea pedis; presents with a blue-green exudate with a fruity odour. Is also an important cause of secondary infection of burns.
- Common cause of whirlpool or swimming pool folliculitis: pruritic follicular, maculopapular, vesicular or pustular lesions occur where the body has been immersed in water. May lead to subcutaneous nodules, deep abscesses, cellulitis and fasciitis.
- Suppurative thrombophlebitis may originate from an intravenous cannula in situ.
- Blood cultures.
- Local investigations, dependent on the site of infection - eg, CXR, sputum, stool, urine cultures.
- Investigation of underlying health problems - eg, FBC, diabetes control indicators.
- Most infections are susceptible to third-generation cephalosporins (ceftazidime), carbapenems (imipenem and meropenem), aminoglycosides (gentamicin and tobramycin) and colistin.
- Serious infections are usually treated with ticarcillin or piperacillin, often in combination with an aminoglycoside.
- Nebulised antipseudomonal antibiotic treatment (tobramycin or colomycin) has been shown to be effective and improve lung function in patients with cystic fibrosis. However, the overall benefits and long-term adverse effects are still uncertain. There is some evidence that oral antibiotics may work just as well.
- Ceftazidime is very effective for pseudomonal meningitis because of its high penetration into the subarachnoid space.
- Malignant otitis externa requires aggressive treatment with systemic combinations of antibiotics and surgery. Duration of treatment is 4-8 weeks, depending on the extent of involvement.
- Eye infections: in cases of small superficial ulcers, topical therapy, consisting of an ophthalmic aminoglycoside or quinolone antibiotic is an alternative. Endophthalmitis requires aggressive antibiotic therapy (parenteral, topical and intraocular).
- Urinary tract infections: piperacillin/tazobactam combination or an aminoglycoside are the antibiotics of choice for severe infection. These drugs have a synergistic effect and can be given together. Ciprofloxacin continues to be a preferred oral agent.
- Burn sepsis: requires aggressive surgical debridement. Whirlpool baths should be avoided.
- Debridement of necrotic tissue.
- Removal of infected medical devices if possible.
- Malignant otitis requires debridement of granulation tissue and necrotic debris.
- Surgery may be required for bowel necrosis, perforation, obstruction or abscess drainage.
- Vitrectomy may be needed in cases of endophthalmitis.
- Thromboembolism from pseudomonal endocarditis may cause brain abscess, cerebritis, mycotic aneurysms.
- Local spread from ear infections can cause sinusitis, mastoiditis, osteomyelitis, cranial nerve palsy, venous thrombosis, meningitis and brain abscesses.
- Gastrointestinal infection can cause bowel perforation and peritonitis.
- Skin and soft tissue infections can cause gangrene.
- Prognosis depends on the site of infection and underlying health of the individual patient.
- Acute fulminant infections (eg bacteraemic pneumonia, septicaemia, burn sepsis and meningitis) are associated with significant mortality.
The following measures are important in all environments but especially in hospitals and nursing homes:
- Strict adherence to rules of general hygiene.
- Normal infection control measures should apply.
- Aseptic procedures, eg venflon and catheter insertion.
- Strict isolation is required for patients with severe burns.
- Proper cleaning, sterilisation and disinfection of reusable equipment.
- Prophylactic antibiotics are not recommended as they result in the emergence of resistant strains of bacteria.
- Vaccines against P. aeruginosa have been under development for several years but have yet to be marketed.
Further reading & references
- Pseudomonas aeruginosa; Public Health England
- Pseudomonas aeruginosa; Public Health England, 2007 (General information).
- Ryan G, Singh M, Dwan K; Inhaled antibiotics for long-term therapy in cystic fibrosis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Mar 16;(3):CD001021.
- Remmington T, Jahnke N, Harkensee C; Oral anti-pseudomonal antibiotics for cystic fibrosis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Oct 29;10:CD005405. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD005405.pub3.
- Use of ceftazidime in children and options for treating pseudomonas infections; World Health Organization, 2008
- Hobson CE, Moy JD, Byers KE, et al; Malignant Otitis Externa: Evolving Pathogens and Implications for Diagnosis and Treatment. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2014 Mar 26.
- British National Formulary
- Tao H, Butler JP, Luttrell T; The Role of Whirlpool in Wound Care. J Am Coll Clin Wound Spec. 2013 Jan 22;4(1):7-12. eCollection 2012 Mar.
- Brain Abscess and Parameningeal Infection; Medical Books Online, 2012
- Chen CK, Su YJ, Lai YC, et al; Gas-forming bacterial peritonitis mimics hollow organ perforation. Am J Emerg Med. 2008 Sep;26(7):838.e3-5. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2008.01.034.
- Aloisio da Costa Vieira R, Zucca Mathes AG, Michelli RA, et al; Necrotizing soft tissue infection of the breast: case report and literature review. Surg Infect (Larchmt). 2012 Aug;13(4):270-5. doi: 10.1089/sur.2011.029. Epub 2012 Aug 7.
- Priebe GP, Goldberg JB; Vaccines for Pseudomonas aeruginosa: a long and winding road. Expert Rev Vaccines. 2014 Apr;13(4):507-19. doi: 10.1586/14760584.2014.890053. Epub 2014 Feb 27.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Colin Tidy
Dr Laurence Knott
Dr Adrian Bonsall