Study objectives: To critically review the available data on the diagnostic evaluation, risk stratification, and therapeutic management of patients with acute exacerbations of COPD.
Design, setting, and participants: English-language articles were identified from the following databases: MEDLINE (from 1966 to week 5, 2000), EMBASE (from 1974 to week 18, 2000), HealthStar (from 1975 to June 2000), and the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register (2000, issue 1). The best available evidence on each subtopic then 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. Study design and results were summarized in evidence tables. Individual studies were rated as to their internal validity, external validity, and quality of study design. Statistical analyses of combined data were not performed.
Measurement and results: Limited data exist regarding the utility of most diagnostic tests. However, chest radiography and arterial blood gas sampling appear to be useful, while short-term spirometry measurements do not. In terms of the risk of relapse and the risk of death after hospitalization for an acute exacerbation, there are identifiable clinical variables that are associated with these outcomes. Therapies for which there is evidence of efficacy include bronchodilators, corticosteroids, and noninvasive positive-pressure ventilation. There is also support for the use of antibiotics in patients with more severe exacerbations. Based on limited data, mucolytics and chest physiotherapy do not appear to be of benefit, and oxygen supplementation appears to increase the risk of respiratory failure in an identifiable subgroup of patients.
Conclusions: Although suggestions for appropriate management can be made based on available evidence, the supporting literature is spotty. Further high-quality research is needed and will require an improved, generally acceptable, and transportable definition of the syndrome "acute exacerbation of COPD" and improved methods for observing and measuring outcomes.