What is pulmonary toilet?

AKA “pulmonary hygiene.” Pulmonary toilet is advocated by many people, and does sound like a good idea in theory. However, the literature on whether pulmonary toilet actually improves outcomes for various patient populations is very mixed. In general, the patients who seem to benefit most are the cystic fibrosis and critically ill/intubated populations.

The purpose is to THIN and LOOSEN secretions. Having an awake, alert patient who can cough on their own is the best kind of pulmonary toilet.

What are the specific components of pulmonary toilet?

  • Bronchodilator (albuterol)
  • Mucolytic (such as NAC or Mucomyst): NAC in particular has become less popular because of lack of demonstrated utility (a good example is    this meta-analysis on cystic fibrosis). I still see it used in the ICU, though.
  • Hypertonic (7%) saline: may cause bronchospasm, coughing
  • Chest PT
    • Vibrating chest vest
    • Percussion (clapping patient on the chest)
    • Postural drainage
  • PEP device and flutter valve (such as Accapella)  
    •       NB: the Accapella =/= incentive spirometer
  • Suctioning
  • Bronchoscopy: using a bronchoscope to “wash out” secretions for atelectasis. This is only helpful in patients who are critically ill/intubated who cannot do any other kind of secretion clearance on their own. My personal observation is that when BAL is used for pulmonary toilet, it turns into a problematic cycle of provoking even more secretions and the need for repeated bronchs. A bronch is also not a completely benign procedure and may be associated with barotrauma, temporarily worsened oxygenation, etc.

When is pulmonary toilet useful? This clinical review is pretty negative. It states that chlorhexidine oral rinses are the only intervention that reduces rates of nosocomial pneumonia, and that other common practices like mucolytics and chest PT are not associated with improved outcomes and may in fact cause harm like bronchospasm and mechanical trauma, respectively. (A lot of evidence comes from pre-2000’s papers/guidelines, though). Let’s look at some common situations:

  • COPD: This meta-analysis reports that daily oral NAC was associated with fewer COPD exacerbations in patients who had a spirometric diagnosis of COPD, but also in patients who did not have a spirometric diagnosis of COPD. However, this joint paper from ACP-ACCP states that multiple trials have not found benefit for mucolytics or chest PT in COPD exacerbations.
  • Cystic fibrosis: Yes to chest PT. There is also good evidence that dornase alfa (DNase) and hypertonic saline have small effects.
  • Atelectasis: for acute atelectasis, if patients cannot cough on their own, chest PT is helpful. (The same review talks about how “bronch for airway clearance” is only indicated in selected cases of atelectasis that are multilobar or severe.)
  • Post-surgical patients :There is very limited objective evidence that pulmonary toilet decreases pulmonary complications (pneumonia, atelectasis, edema, etc.) in the postoperative period. This Cochrane review shows that in patients who underwent  upper abdominal surgery, incentive spirometry didn’t make a difference. Maybe this will make us feel better about all those unused incentive spirometers sitting by patients’ bedsides.