The Febrile Patient

This hot case frequently takes the form of a quest, to find the source of sepsis.

Generally speaking, there may be numerous reasons for fever:

  • Vasculitis
  • Infectious disease
  • Neoplasm (eg. leukaemia)
  • Drug-related (eg. "drug fever", neuroleptic malignant syndrome, serotonin syndrome, or malignant hyperthermia following anaesthesia)
  • Intracranial (eg. centrally-driven fever following SAH, or hypothalamic dysfunction)
  • Trauma-associated (due to massive transfusion)
  • Endocrine hyperthermia (eg. hyperthyroidism)
  • Environmental hyperthermia (eg. heat stroke)

Previous hot cases with this sort of theme to them can be found below.

Examination of the Critically Ill Patient with Unexplained Fever

The standard introduction

  • The examiner will give you a history.

The prelude to the dance

  • Wash hands.
  • Gown and glove.
    • Observe: there may be purple cytotoxic bins in the room; you may be asked to wear cytotoxic precaution gear. Suddenly, you realise this febrile patient is probably on chemotherapy. Febrile neutropenia questions arise. Reverse barrier precautions (eg. masks in addition to gloves and gowns) confirm this suspicion. You don't even need to ask for the white cell count.
  • Ask, if relevant:
    • "Can I turn on all the lights?"
    • "Are there any movement restrictions? Can I sit them up, or roll them on their side?"
    • "Is there a language barrier?"
  • Introduce yourself: “Hi Mr or Mrs Bloggs, I’m Dr So-and-so. I’m going to examine you.”

The Monitors

  • Rhythm
  • Rate
  • Morphology: QRS width,
  • MAP and abnormal morphology of the arterial waveform
  • CVP and abnormal morphology of the CVP waveform
  • Ancillary waveforms eg. the PA catheter waveform
  • Oxygen saturation measurement, and the quality of the waveform
  • End-tidal CO2 waveform and level

One should pay attention to the temperature reading, if it is being constantly monitored

The Ventilator

One can ask the examiners the following questions:

  • How are we oxygenating this patient?
  • How are we ventilating this patient?

One should ask about the following parameters:

  • FIO2
  • PEEP
  • Peak pressure
  • Plateau pressure
  • Tidal volume and minute volume

One should ask to look at the pressure-volume loops.

Weird ventilation strategies might suggest a pulmonary source of infection.

Urine catheter

  • Unusual colour
  • Anuria
  • Cloudyness or precipitate

Drains (surgical, intercostal, etc)

There may be surgical drains (what is in them? How much of it?). Asking how much has been coming out may be relevant in a hot case which focuses on the diagnosis of a shock state.

The pleural catheters are also interesting. One should make a mental note of whether the ICCs are on free drainage or on suction. The content of these drains could be informative, especially if one notices blood or chyle.


A CVVHDF or SLEDD process may be in progress. The savvy candidate may wish to ask the following questions:

  • Which modality is being used?
  • What is the dose of dialysis?
  • What is the rate of fluid removal?
  • How is the circuit anticoagulated?
  • How long has this filter lasted?

The CRRT may suggest that the patient has severe sepsis, or that the patient is a recipied of chronic haemodialysis who has developed a more trivial sort of sepsis.


The patient you are examining may have some sort of extra gadget hooked up. If ECMO is in progress, one may wish to ask about the following parameters:

  • VA or VV?
  • Flow rate
  • Fresh gas flow
  • Any recent problems with the circuit

If IABP counterpulsation is in progress, it raises additional questions. One may wish to ask the examiners whether one may be able to switch it to 1:2, to assess the efficacy of augmentation.

Active cooling

If this is in progress, one can assume the fever has reached 40-41°.

Active cooling is rarely required for septic patients; however, in the context of brain injury and centrally-driven fever, this may be the only way to control the temperature.


This stage is critically important. The drug and fluid infusions which would be worth noting are:

  • Vasopressors/inotropes
  • Antibiotics (duh)
  • Nimodipine (SAH)
  • Blood products


One should observe the following features of an EVD:

  • Set height
  • Whether it is open or closed
  • The CSF colour - eg. is it full of blood?

Later, one should remember to ask for the CSF cell count and culture.

The physical examination

Expose and observe

Ideally, one should get the patient sitting up to 30-45°. This may not be possible. However, one should still ask for it.

Ideally, the patient should be exposed from the waist up. The candidate can then stand back and look for anything externally obvious:

  • Skin colour, eg. jaundice or the discolouration of chronic renal failure
  • Muscle wasting, obesity
  • The evidence of trauma, wound dressings, etc
  • The pattern of breathing (eg. whether there is a characteristic chest flail)
  • Rash of vasculitis
  • Abscesses/debridement sites of necrotising fasciitis


Performing the GCS should be the first step, unless you notice that a neuromuscular junction blocker is among the infusions. The level of consciousness then determines how you go about examining the rest of the patient.

A traditionalist, who is examining Mr Bloggs, would approach the GCS in the following manner:

  • Grab hold of both of the patient's hands.
  • "Mr Bloggs!" One pauses to observe for eye opening.
  • "Can you squeeze my hands?"
  • If hand squeezing and eye opening is not observed, one administers a painful nail bed stimulus to both hands, to observe the response to pain.

Hands, nail signs, pulse and the arterial line.

First, one should spent a second assessing whether the hands are warm or cold.

Hand and hail signs one is particularly interested in during the febrile hot case:

  • Splinter haemorrhages
  • Janeway lesions
  • Osler's nodes
  • Features of rheumatoid arthritis (which suggests chronic immune suppression)

Nail signs in general are discussed in greater detail elsewhere.

Next comes the pulse. While one still has both of the patient's hands, one ought to try to compare the radial pulses. It would be worthwhile to look up at the arterial line trace at this stage; abnormalities such as the widened pulse pressure of aortic regurgitation may not have been noticed until this stage.


Tone of the upper limbs

Move up from the hands. While you are still holding the hands, you can perform a sort of gross examination of tone by pronating and supinating the wrists, and by flexing and extending the elbows.

Hypertonia globally may be a feature of neuroleptic-malignant syndrome.

Cubital fossa

Examine the cubital fossa for

  • Peripheral lines
  • Evidence of multiple venepunctures, iatrogenic or recreational
  • Lymph nodes
  • Brachial pulse
  • The presence of an obvious AV fistula

One should then palpate the axillary lymph nodes.

The Neck

  • Inspect any central lines. This is very important! Later, one needs to mention them as either something you are considering as a source of sepsis, or something that is plainly not the source of sepsis.
  • It is important to ask the examiners: How old is this line?
  • Look again at the CVP

Palpate the neck:

  • Trachea: is it midline? Is there a new tracheostomy there?
  • Thyroid gland
  • Cervical lymph nodes
  • Carotid pulse - one side at a time!
  • Submandibular lymph nodes
  • Pre- and post-auricular lymph nodes

One should ask the examiners whether it is possible to flex the neck, to examine for meningism. This is a crucial step, and one which may determine the character of the subsequent discussion.

It would be embarrassing to miss meningism in the examination of the febrile patient.

On the way up to the face, one should feel the temporal arteries. Vasculitis is a cause of fever, and its many manifestations may have been lost among the spectrum of ICU-related skin problems.

Pupils, cranial nerves and the airway

This section can be divided into three broad groups, according to the level of consciousness:

The paralysed patient The unconscious patient The awake patient

A sophisticated and detailed cranial nerve examination is desirable, but impossible within the timeframe permitted by the hot case. The following list of brief cranial nerve examination techniques is an attempt to abbreviate the formal sequence of testing to fit within

Pupil size

One can derive a substantial amount of information from the size of the pupils.

Hugely dilated pipils suggest serotonin syndrome.

Tiny constricted pupils may reveal anticholinergic syndrome as the cause of the hyperthermia.

Anticholinergic syndrome is also characterised by the failure of accomodation. These people will not be able to focus on near objects. however, asking the delirious anticholinergic overdose patient to focus on anything is an exercise in futility.

In the context of an unconscious patient with a fever, one may wish to perform fundoscopy. Not only is one looking for the characteristic bulging disk of increased intracranial pressure, but one may also find retinal involvement from systemic candidiasis.

Light reflex

Ask the examiners to dim the room lights.

Open both eyes. Each eye is exposed to light. The opposite pupil should constrict consensually.

This tests CN II (afferent) and CN III (efferent).

Eye movements and nystagmus

The conscious patient will be able to follow the tip of the candidate's finger.

The pattern of movements should be tracing the six cardinal points: superior left, inferior left, superior center, inferior center, superior right, inferior right.

This tests CNs II, IV and VI.

Nystagmus in eye movements may suggest alcohol withdrawal as a cause of the fever.

Gag reflex

The Yankeur sucker is used to probe the posterior pharynx, on both sides. A gag reaction should result from this.

This collectively tests CN X and IX.

An additional reason to poke around in the mouth is the potential for oral or pharyngeal infection as the cause of fever. One may discover a tonsillar abscess or a dental infection.

Cough reflex

While on the subject of CN X, one may test the cough reflex by suctioning the trachea.

This tests CN X.

This is also a convenient time to ask about the volume and character of the secretions. Sputum is an important clue to the

Tongue movements

The conscious patient is asked to protrude their tongue, and move it from side to side.

This tests CN XII.

Uvula deviation

The uvula deviates away from the lesion.

This tests CN X and IX.

Chest palpation, percussion and auscultation


One puts both their hands on the chest to assess the symmetry of chest expansion.


One might wish to percuss the chest.

Changes in percussion resonance may be worth commenting on.

An empyema, pneumonia or pleural effusion may be uncovered in this fashion.


One may begin by auscultating the apices anteriorly. Then, one should auscultate as posteriorly as possible. The money is in the bases.

Palpation and auscultation of the praecordium


The clever candidate will make a big show of palpating both the apex and the right sternal edge.


One should auscultate in the following sequence:

  • Apex
  • Left sternal edge, lower
  • Left sternal edge, upper
  • Right sternal edge, lower
  • Left sternal edge, upper
  • Both carotids

The various clicks and murmurs one encounters are discussed elsewhere.

Specifically, one would be looking for a pericardial effusion, or a rub of pericarditis.

Abdominal palpation, percussion and auscultation

For this, one should ask to lay the patient flat.

Abdominal observation

  • Take a moment to behold the abdomen. One may ask the examiners to look under any surgical dressings; one is likely to be denied this part of the examination (they will tell you the wound looks clean and dry).

Abdominal palpation

  • All quadrants should be palpated.
  • Then, feel for the liver edge; observe respiratory excursion
  • Then, feel for the spleen.
  • Then, try to ballot the kidneys. Enquire about renal tenderness.

Abdominal percussion

  • This can double as a test for peritonism.
  • If there is some suspicion of ascites, one may ask to roll the patient, so shifting dullness can be better appreciated. The examiners may not permit this test.

Abdominal auscultation

  • One should spend a good length of time on this, if one suspects bowel obstruction or ileus.

Examination of the pelvis and groins

The pelvic content would have been palpated during the abdominal examination.

The more important part of this examination is the groin.

At this stage, the patient should be re-draped - cover them from the waist up, and uncover their legs.

Observation and palpation of the pelvis:

  • There may be a rash of thrush, or a groin haematoma, or an external fixation device.
  • The posterior pelvis and sacrum should ideally be palpated for pitting oedema.
  • One should ask to roll the patient over, to look for pressure areas.

Examination of the lines

  • One should take notice of anything going into or coming out of the femoral vessels.
  • There may be a vascath, a PiCCO catheter or some sort of angiography sheath. These are important clues. Why did this patient get an angiogram? What is the PiCCO for?

Examination of the genitals and rectum

  • A complete examination would call for the palpation of the testes, and a comment on their size. However, this may not be practical.
  • One should take note of any sort of waste management devices, eg. rectal tube, SPC or IDC.
  • One should definitely ask about performing a PR. I
  • If one is forbidden from performing the PR, one should ask about the following features:
    • Anal sphincter tone
    • Size and quality of the prostate
    • Presence of melaena or hard stool
    • Presence of blood or mucus
    • Quantity and character of diarrhoea.
  • One should also ask about performing a PV. Once refused, one should ask whether the possibility of a retained tampon has been explored.

Once one is finished with the pelvis, one should cover it again, so that only the legs are sticking out.

Examination of the lower limbs

One should ask to remove TEDs and compression stockings.

  • One should observe whether the lower limbs are mottled, and whether they are of the same size (assymetrical swelling leads one to suspect lymphoedema or DVT)
  • One should palpate the larger muscles. Muscle compartment tightness may suggest that rhabdomyolysis is the cause of the SIRS-associated fever.
  • Pitting oedema should be palpated.
  • Test leg muscle tone
  • Look for calf tenderness

Feet and the Babinsky reflex

The feet would have already been palpated to assess their temperature, and to look for pitting oedema.

Observation of the feet

One should look specifically for changes suggestive of chronic diabetic foot disease, or chronically poor vascular supply. Ulcers on the heel may be concealed by dressings; one should ask what is under the dressings, and whether one can take a look.

Palpation of the feet

This should consist of palpating the dorsalis pedis and posterior tibial pulse.

Babinsky reflex

One should test the Babinsky bilaterally.


One should attempt to assess clonus in both feet. Clonus is a feature of serotonin syndrome; whereas neuroleptic malignant syndrome only has generalised rigidity.

Power in the upper and lower limbs

Now is the time to properly start the neurological examination of this patient.

Power of the muscle groups may be tested in the following sequence:

  • Ankle dorsi and plantarflexion
  • Knee flexion and extension
  • Hip flexion, extension, adduction and abduction.

Time to sit the patient back up again.

  • Hand grip
  • Wrist dorsiflexion/palmarflexion
  • Elbow flexion/extension
  • Shoulder adduction / abduction

Reflex testing

Reflexes may be exaggerated in serotonin syndrome, whereas in neuroleptic malignant syndrome the reflexes are depressed.

The reflexes may be tested in the following order:

  • Brachioradialis
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Knee jerk
  • Ankle jerk

The measured observations

Ask to see the obs chart. If it is not allowed, ask for the following:

  • Trends of blood pressure and heart rate
  • Temperature
  • Drain output
  • Urine output

One may also wish do demonstrate an interest in the trends of any sort of advanced haemodynamic monitoring, eg. cardiac index as measured by PAC or PiCCO

The laboratory investigations

One needs to show an interest in the following labs:

  • ABG
  • Routine bloods; specifically, one is looking for the full blood count, which contains a white cell count and eosinophil count.
  • Urinalysis
  • Culture results or at least the gram stain
  • Case-specific bloods:
    • CK
    • LFTs
    • pancreatic enzymes
    • inflammatory markers
    • results of the vasculitic screen.

It might be interesting to ask about the lipase levels in the abdominal/pleural drain fluid.

One should also ask about any recently commenced medications, and about any recent anaesthesia.

Imaging and other investigations

One should always ask for the following:

  • ECG
  • CXR

You sometimes want to see the following:

  • CSF analysis and culture result
  • CT or MRI results


Case presentation and discussion: when you have a good idea of what is going on

"The source of Mr Bloggs' sepsis is [insert clever diagnosis here]."

"I have come to this conclusion on the basis of the following findings: [insert clinical findings here]"

"I would like to confirm my diagnosis with the following investigations: [insert appropriate investigations]"

"The current management issues are as follows: [a brief list of management priorities]"

"I would approach the management of these issues in the following manner: [list of management strategies; it helps to organise this into an A,B,C,D,E approach if one has a complex multisystem problem to manage]"

If relevant:

"My choice of antibiotics in this case would be guided by the susceptibilities of the organism. Classically, such infections respond well to [antibiotic cocktail]."

"Given the degree of immune dysfunction, I would broaden the cover by including antiviral and antifungal agents".

Case presentation and discussion: when you don't have a clue

”This is a complex case and I’m not certain of the diagnosis. Though I suspect sepsis, the alternative possibilities include [insert differentials]".

"I note the following features, supporting the diagnosis of sepsis [relevant features]"

"Additionally, I have identified the following clinical findings, which are not explained by this hypothesis:[insert list of findings]."

"I also note the following organ failures: [list organ problems]."

"The possible aetiologies responsible for these findings could include [list of differentials]".

"In order to discriminate between these differentials, I would like to perform the following investigations: [list of investigations]"

"Furthermore, I would like to enlist the help of the following specialties [insert list of consults], for whom I will have the following specific requests/questions: [what questions will you ask these specialist teams]"

"While suspecting sepsis, I would be inclined to use broad antimicrobial cover, consisting of [insert any cephalosplattin/murderpenem]"

Number of previous hot cases in this topic: 19

2015, Paper 1

Unspecified hospital in Melbourne

45 - year - old man, day 3 ICU, admitted with fever and respiratory failure and left empyema. Background of long - term LVAD for cardiomyopathy. On examination he was awake and alert with an old sternotomy scar and a new left thoracotomy wound , three intercostal catheters in situ, and reduced breath sounds on the left side
Candidates were asked to assess him for the source of the fever.

2014, Paper 1

Prince Charles Hospital

  • 59-year-old female, day 6 ICU, admitted with Klebsiella sepsis with cavitating pulmonary lesions and liver abscess, two weeks after returning from Malaysia. She was intubated for worsening hypoxaemia, tachypnoea and respiratory alkalosis. Clinical signs included a widespread rash, fever, right lower lobe changes, poor lung compliance and septic shock on high-dose vasopressors. Candidates were directed to examine her and identify possible causes for her fever.
2013, paper 2

Westmead Hospital

  • 81-year-old male admitted 17 days earlier with SAH secondary to ruptured right PCOM aneurysm with bradycardia and AICD malfunction and new onset fever. Clinical findings included signs of biventricular failure, left upper limb weakness and the presence of craniotomy wound, EVD and permanent pacemaker/AICD. Candidates were told he had presented with a headache and altered conscious state and now had a fever and were asked to examine him and determine a management plan. Discussion points included interpretation of imaging and investigations, the differential diagnosis and causes of fever.

Liverpool Hospital

  • 75-year-old female with MSSA mitral valve endocarditis admitted to ICU 5 days earlier following a MET call for a sudden fall in conscious state to GCS 4 and intubation in the ward Clinical findings included signs of left lower lobe consolidation, pansystolic murmur at the apex and marked oedema. Candidates were told that she presented with fever, delirium and hypotension and were asked to examine her with a view to establishing the diagnosis. Discussion points included the differential diagnosis, interpretation of investigations, treatment of endocarditis and drug dosing with CRRT.
2013, Paper 1

Flinders Medical Centre

  • 40-year-old woman, 2 weeks in ICU, with a history of intravenous drug use, presenting with PV bleeding and a septic spontaneous abortion, and now with right- sided endocarditis and lung abscesses and ongoing fever. Candidates were asked to assess her for causes of the fever.
2012, Paper 2

Royal Melbourne Hospital

  • 53-year-old female with severe sepsis, acute kidney injury and a new temporal lobe infarct. Candidates were asked to determine the source of sepsis.

Monash Medical Centre

  • 35-year-old woman with intracranial haematoma and fever. Clinical findings included a head wound, withdrawal to painful stimulus, bilateral upgoing plantar reflex responses and thrombophlebitis of the right arm. Candidates were asked to perform a neurological exam and suggest a cause for the fever. Discussion included interpretation of the CXR findings and management of fever.
2012, Paper 1

Royal Brisbane Hospital

  • 43-year-old male day 4 ICU with septic shock and a background of pancreatitis, chronic liver disease and COPD. Candidates were asked to assess the patient and identify the key issues and possible sources of sepsis.

Royal Brisbane Hospital

  • 18-year-old male day 10 ICU with multi-trauma following pedestrian versus car motor vehicle crash and presentation with haemorrhagic shock. Current issues included new onset fever and failed extubation. Candidates were asked to assess the patient and discuss potential causes of the fever.
2011, Paper 2

Royal Prince Alfred Hospital

  • 22-year-old male, day 12 with severe traumatic brain injury. Urgent right lateral craniectomy, posterior fossa decompression and evacuation of SDH on admission. GCS 4 off sedation. New onset fever. Candidates were asked about assessment and management of fever and weaning plan

Royal Prince Alfred Hospital

  • 69-year-old male with prolonged admission to ICU for septic shock for E coli liver abscess. Failed ward discharge and re-admitted with new fever. Findings include cachexia and generalized weakness, signs of COPD, tracheostomy, delirium, right chest drain for pleural effusion, abdominal drain with old drain sites. Candidates were directed to examine the patient with a few to making a differential diagnosis for the cause of the new fever

Royal Prince Alfred Hospital

  • 55-year-old male admitted with septic shock secondary to right lower lobe pneumonia. Candidates directed to determine cause of septic shock
2011, Paper 1

Westmead Hospital

  • 64-year-old male with background of CLL and recent chemotherapy, who presented with severe septic shock

Liverpool Hospital

  • Male with neutropenic sepsis, likely catheter related, 2 weeks after stem cell transplant for mantle cell lymphoma. Clinical findings include hyperdynamic shock, systolic murmur, ventilated on minimal oxygen
2010, Paper 2

Queen Elizabeth Hospital

  • A 59 year old male with a previous splenectomy presented with a 2/52 h/o leg pain and swelling following an insect bite. Current problems included aortic regurgitation , endocarditis and left above knee amputation and respiratory failure
2009, Paper 2

St George Hospital

  • Bilateral traumatic leg amputation + head injury following ingestion of illicit drug. Discussion of the causes and management of fever.
2007, Paper 2

Unspecified hospital

  • A 44 yr old patient admitted with intracranial hemorrhage secondary to an AVM. Currently in ICU, slow wean, and ongoing fevers. Discussion: on neurological assessment, weaning of sedation, approach to management of temperatures in a neurosurgical patient.

Unspecified hospital

  • A 63 yr old man with a subdural hemorrhage after a ruptured AVM. Discussion: on slow neurological recovery, ongoing fevers.

Unspecified hospital

  • 50 year old female day 10 post-intracranial haemorrhage and EVD insertion. Discussion: Candidates asked to examine looking for the aetiology of a new onset fever.