Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in developed countries, and its prevalence is projected to increase over the coming decades. According to the World Health Organization, COPD will become the third leading cause of death worldwide by 2020. COPD has a chronic and progressive course, and is often aggravated by exacerbations, which typically arise as a result of bronchial infection. Exacerbations are characterised by periods of increasing acute symptoms, particularly cough, dyspnoea and production of sputum, which worsen airflow obstruction, further impair quality of life and generally require a change in regular medication. Exacerbations are the most common cause of medical visits, hospital admissions and death in patients with COPD, and frequent exacerbations worsen health status and may cause a permanent decline in lung function. Chronic cough and sputum production are common in the general population, but significantly more prevalent in patients with respiratory disorders; these symptoms have been suggested as a risk factor for exacerbations of COPD. This article will review the consequences of chronic cough and sputum production in patients with COPD and analyse whether these risk factors may be useful for identifying a specific phenotype of patient that requires different management to reduce the occurrence of exacerbations.
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