Background: The role of oral corticosteroids in treating patients with exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) remains contentious. We assessed in a prospective, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial the effects of oral corticosteroid therapy in patients with exacerbations of COPD requiring hospital admission.
Methods: We recruited patients with non-acidotic exacerbations of COPD who were randomly assigned oral prednisolone 30 mg once daily (n=29) or identical placebo (n=27) for 14 days, in addition to standard treatment with nebulised bronchodilators, antibiotics, and oxygen. We did spirometry and recorded symptom scores daily in inpatients. Time to discharge and withdrawals were noted in each group. We recalled patients at 6 weeks to repeat spirometry and collect data on subsequent exacerbations and treatment. Hospital stay was analysed by intention to treat and forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1) according to protocol.
Findings: FEV1 after bronchodilation increased more rapidly and to a greater extent in the corticosteroid-treated group: percentage predicted FEV1 after bronchodilation rose from 25.7% (95% CI 21.0-30.4) to 32.2% (27.3-27.1) in the placebo group (p<0.0001) compared with 28.2% (23.5-32.9) to 41.5% (35.8-47.2) in the corticosteroid-treated group (p<0.0001). Up to day 5 of hospital stay, FEV1 after bronchodilation increased by 90 mL daily (50.8-129.2) and by 30 mL daily (10.4-49.6) in the placebo group (p=0.039). Hospital stays were shorter in the corticosteroid-treated group. Groups did not differ at 6-week follow-up.
Interpretation: These data provide evidence to support the current practice of prescribing low-dose oral corticosteroids to all patients with non-acidotic exacerbations of COPD requiring hospital admission.