Why one woman had oil in her lung for decades

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An elderly woman in Florida had oil in her lungs — for decades — from a now-outdated procedure she received in her 20s to treat tuberculosis (TB), according to a new report of the woman’s case. The 86-year-old woman went to the doctor because of a burning pain in her chest and upper stomach. She was diagnosed with acid reflux, and her symptoms got better after she started treatment for the condition. But while she was at the hospital, she received a chest X-ray that showed something unusual: There was an opaque, cloudy area in the upper part of her left lung.
This cloudy area was concerning to her doctors, because it could have meant that she had fluid buildup in the space between her chest wall and her lung, known as the pleural cavity. In people with certain conditions, blood or pus can accumulate in this area.
However, the woman remembered having oil injected into her lungs decades earlier, as a treatment for tuberculosis. This procedure was called oleothorax, and it was abandoned in the 1950s after effective antibiotics for TB were discovered, said Dr. Abhilash Koratala, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Florida, who treated the woman and co-authored the report of her case. [27 Oddest Medical Cases]
Given that more than 60 years have passed since this treatment was used, it’s rare to see patients today with oil in their lungs from oleothorax, Koratala told Live Science. What’s more, most patients who received the oil treatment eventually had the oil suctioned out of their lungs. But some patients never went back to the doctor to have the oil removed, because they were no longer experiencing symptoms from their tuberculosis, as was the case with this patient, the case report said.
The woman didn’t give a specific reason for not getting the oil removed, but “it’s not uncommon for patients to not go back to the doctor if they are feeling good,” Koratala said.
The idea behind oleothorax was to use injections of oil, such as vegetable or mineral oil, to collapse the lung affected by TB bacteria, Koratala said. In the 1930s to 1950s, doctors thought that such “collapse therapy” would give part of the lung a chance to rest, and help kill TB bacteria, according to the Museum of Health Care at Kingston in Ontario, Canada. When oil is injected into the pleural cavity, blood vessels and lymphatic vessels in the area initially absorb some of the oil, Koratala said.

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