Inhalation injury is an independent risk factor in burn mortality, imparting a 20% increased risk of death. Yet there is little information on the natural history, functional outcome, or pathophysiology of thermal injury to the laryngotracheal complex, limiting treatment progress. This paper demonstrates a case series (n = 3) of significant thermal airway injuries. In all cases, the initial injury was far exceeded by the subsequent immune response and aggressive fibroinflammatory healing. Serial examination demonstrated progressive epithelial injury, mucosal inflammation, airway remodeling, and luminal compromise. Histologic findings in the first case demonstrate an early IL-17A response in the human airway following thermal injury. This is the first report implicating IL-17A in the airway mucosal immune response to thermal injury. Their second and third patients received Azithromycin targeting IL-17A and showed clinical responses. The third patient also presented with exposed tracheal cartilage and underwent mucosal reconstitution via split-thickness skin graft over an endoluminal stent in conjunction with tracheostomy. This was associated with rapid abatement of mucosal inflammation, resolution of granulation tissue, and return of laryngeal function. Patients who present with thermal inhalation injury should receive a thorough multidisciplinary airway evaluation, including early otolaryngologic evaluation. New early endoscopic approaches (scar lysis and mucosal reconstitution with autologous grafting over an endoluminal stent), when combined with targeted medical therapy aimed at components of mucosal airway inflammation (local corticosteroids and systemic Azithromycin targeting IL-17A), may have potential to limit chronic cicatricial complications.
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