Management of acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a summary and appraisal of published evidence

Ann Intern Med. 2001 Apr 3;134(7):600-20. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-134-7-200104030-00016.


Purpose: To review critically the available data on diagnostic evaluation, risk stratification, and therapeutic management of patients with acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Data sources: English-language articles were identified by searching MEDLINE (1966 to 2000, week 5), EMBASE (1974 to 2000, week 18), HealthStar (1975 to June 2000), and the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register (2000, Issue 1).

Study selection: The best available evidence on each subtopic was selected for analysis. Randomized trials, sometimes buttressed by cohort studies, were used to evaluate therapeutic interventions. Cohort studies were used to evaluate diagnostic tests and risk stratification.

Data extraction: Study design and results were summarized in evidence tables. Individual studies were rated by internal validity, external validity, and quality of design. Statistical analyses of combined data were not performed.

Data synthesis: Data on the utility of most diagnostic tests are limited. However, chest radiography and arterial blood gas sampling seem useful while acute spirometry does not. Identifiable clinical variables are associated with risk for relapse and risk for death after hospitalization for an acute exacerbation. Evidence of efficacy was found for bronchodilators, corticosteroids, and noninvasive positive-pressure ventilation. There is also support for the use of antibiotics in patients with more severe exacerbations. On the basis of limited data, mucolytics and chest physiotherapy do not seem to be of benefit, and oxygen supplementation seems to increase the risk for respiratory failure only in an identifiable subgroup of patients.

Conclusions: Although suggestions for appropriate management can be made on the basis of available evidence, the supporting literature is scarce and further high-quality research is necessary. Such research will require an improved, generally acceptable, and transportable definition of acute exacerbation of COPD, as well as improved methods for observing and measuring outcomes.

Publication types

  • Guideline
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Practice Guideline
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / therapeutic use
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Bronchodilator Agents / therapeutic use
  • Evidence-Based Medicine*
  • Expectorants / therapeutic use
  • Hospital Mortality
  • Humans
  • Lung Diseases, Obstructive / diagnosis
  • Lung Diseases, Obstructive / mortality
  • Lung Diseases, Obstructive / therapy*
  • Oxygen Inhalation Therapy
  • Positive-Pressure Respiration
  • Recurrence
  • Research Design / standards
  • Risk Factors


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Bronchodilator Agents
  • Expectorants