Microbiology Case Study: An Elderly Woman with a Cough Develops Skin Nodules

Case History

Our patient is an 83 year old female with previous history of arterial hypertension, atrial flutter and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who presented with dry cough (~2 weeks), fever (102ºF), and cutaneous ulcerated plaques with elevated borders on forearm, foot, leg, and neck. Chest radiographs and chest CT scan showed numerous bilateral nodular consolidations compatible with pneumonia. Additionally, mild leukocytosis (14,200 cells /mm3) and hypohemoglobinemia (10.9 mg/dl) were documented. A skin biopsy was taken from the forearm lesion. Periodic acid–Schiff (PAS) and Grocott-Gomori’s (or Gömöri) methenamine silver (GMS) stains identified rare budding yeast (PAS, Image 1). Acid-fast bacilli (AFB) and Gram stains were negative for mycobacteria and bacteria, respectively.

Image 1. Budding yeast with a thick double cell wall were identified microscopically surrounded by prominent supurative granulomatous reaction (PAS, 100x).


A diagnosis of disseminated blastomycosis was made based broad based budding yeast seen on PAS stain (Image 1).

Blastomycosis infection most commonly affects persons living in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, Great Lakes Region of the United States, and southern Canadian provinces. It is a fungal infection that can cause asymptomatic infection, isolated pulmonary disease, or serious and potentially fatal disseminated disease. B. dermatitidis can infect every organ of the body giving great variety of clinical manifestations, which is the reason why it is known as “the great pretender.” More than half of infected patients are asymptomatic. Symptomatic patients generally present with pulmonary symptoms, and the development of disseminated disease after hematogenous spread is common (~25 to 40% of symptomatic cases). The most common extra-pulmonary locations are: skin, bone, genitourinary tract, and central nervous system (CNS). Unlike histoplasmosis, most cases of blastomycosis are seen in immunocompetent patients, although immunocompromised patients may be at higher risk to develop severe forms of the disease.

Blastomyces is a thermally dimorphic fungus that grows as a yeast in the body and as filamentous fungi with septate hyphae in the environment. Recent phylogenic analysis has divided the Blastomyces genus into 2 species, B dermatitidis and B gilchristi . Culture of B. dermatitidis from the environment is extremely difficult, and much of what we know is conjecture from a few documented outbreaks, of which several occurred in wooded areas near waterways. These investigations found that exposure to dust clouds associated with construction or crop harvesting were the only identified risk factors for infection. Blastomycosis infection occurs through aerosolization of conidia from the environment causing respiratory infection or less commonly through direct inoculation into cutaneous abrasions. Once in the host, the conidia transform into yeast. The specific proteins expressed during the yeast phase allow the evasion of phagocytic and CD4+ cells.

Laboratory diagnosis

The most expedient method to diagnose blastomycosis remains examination of stained fluid or tissue specimens. Yeast are 8-15 µm in size with broad based buds of 4-5 µm and have a characteristic refractory double cell wall. Fluid can be stained with 10% potassium hydroxide plus calcofluor white, whereas formalin fixed paraffin embedded tissue samples can be stained with GMS or PAS. B. dermatitidis yeast can be difficult to visualize with Gram or hematoxylin and eosin (H&E) stains, but if found, the characteristic broad-based budding pattern of yeast can lead to presumptive diagnosis before culture and non-culture based diagnostic test results are available.

Culture of B. dermatitidis provides a definitive diagnosis of pulmonary and extra-pulmonary disease. B. dermatitidis grows well on routine fungal media such as Sabouraud dextrose agar, potato dextrose agar, and brain–heart infusion media. The yeast phase is inhibited by media containing cyclohexamide. Culture typically demonstrates growth in as little as 4-7 days. Colonies will initially appear yeast-like, but then develop white cottony aerial mycelium and turn tan with age. Mature growth is achieved around day 14 and the reverse of the colony is a tan color. At 25-30°C, B. dermatitidis forms septate hyphae with round or pear-shaped conidia attached to the hyphae by short or long conidiophores. This gives the characteristic appearance of “lollipops.” Scedosporium spp. and Chrysosporium spp. are common confounders because they make similar structures. Definitive identification of Blastomyces sp. can be made by conversion of the mold phase to the yeast phase by incubation at 37°C. An alternative to conversion is using a DNA probe assay.



  1. Medically Important Fungi, 5th edition
  2. Principles and Practices of Infectious Disease, 7th edition

Julio picture

-Julio Diaz-Perez, MD is a 1st year anatomic and clinical pathology resident at University of Chicago (NorthShore).

-Erin McElvania, PhD, D(ABMM), is the Director of Clinical Microbiology NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Illinois.

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