The role of small airways in lung disease

Respir Med. 2002 Feb;96(2):67-80. doi: 10.1053/rmed.2001.1216.


The small airways constitute one of the least understood areas of the lungs. They play a role in many lung diseases, and small airway pathology results in significant morbidity New approaches to their evaluation may provide insights into this major area of lung disease. Asthma is well recognized as a disease of both large and small airways. Physiological and pathological evidence, from techniques such as post-mortem tissue histological analysis, induced sputum and transbronchial biopsies, has reinforced the concept of the involvement of the entire bronchial tree n the inflammatory process in asthma, In addition to describing the airway pathology in asthma, th s review focuses on the pathogenesis and role of small airway obstruction n other diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), sarcoidosis and obliterative bronchiolitis (OB). COPD is characterized by the presence of airflow obstruction resulting from lesions in the small airways. In addition, features compatible with small airways disease are common in IPF, sarcoidosis and OB. Recent advances in pulmonary imaging, such as high-resolution computed tomography (HRCT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with hyperpolarized 3He, have allowed non-invasive reproducible measurements of structure-function relationships to be made for the small airways. These techniques have great potential for diagnosing changes in small airway function and for assessing responses to treatment. New insights into the contribution of small airways to a range of lung diseases may lead to the development of therapies targeted at this part of the bronchial anatomy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bronchi / pathology*
  • Bronchiolitis Obliterans / drug therapy
  • Bronchiolitis Obliterans / pathology
  • Drug Delivery Systems
  • Glucocorticoids / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Lung Diseases / drug therapy
  • Lung Diseases / pathology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / drug therapy
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / pathology
  • Pulmonary Fibrosis / drug therapy
  • Pulmonary Fibrosis / pathology
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Sarcoidosis / drug therapy
  • Sarcoidosis / pathology
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed


  • Glucocorticoids