Background: Individuals with chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may suffer recurrent exacerbations with an increase in volume or purulence of sputum, or both. Because of the personal and healthcare costs associated with exacerbations, any therapy that reduces the number of exacerbations is useful. There is a marked difference among countries in terms of prescribing of mucolytics depending on whether or not they are perceived to be effective.
Primary objective: to determine if treatment with mucolytics reduces the frequency of exacerbations, days of disability, or both, in participants with chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or both.
Secondary objectives: to determine if mucolytics lead to an improvement in lung function or quality of life and to determine the frequency of adverse effects associated with mucolytics.
Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Airways Group Specialised Register and reference lists of articles on ten separate occasions, the most recent being in July 2012.
Selection criteria: We included randomised studies that compared oral mucolytic therapy with placebo for at least two months in adults with chronic bronchitis or COPD. We excluded studies of people with asthma and cystic fibrosis.
Data collection and analysis: The review analysed summary data only, the majority from published studies. For earlier versions, one author extracted data, which was rechecked in subsequent updates. In later versions, we double-checked data extraction. We then entered data into RevMan for analysis.
Main results: Two further trials have been added to the review for the 2012 update. There are now 30 trials in the review, recruiting a total of 7436 participants. Allocation concealment was not clearly described in the early trials, and selection bias may have inflated the results, which reduces our confidence in the findings of these trials.The likelihood of being exacerbation-free during the study period (22 trials in 4886 participants with a mean duration of 10 months) was greater in the mucolytic group for the double-blind trials (Peto odds ratio (OR) 1.84; 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.63 to 2.07). However, the more recent trials show less benefit of treatment than the earlier trials included in this review. The overall number needed to treat with mucolytics to keep an additional participant free from exacerbations over 10 months was seven (NNTB 7; 95% CI 6 to 9). The use of mucolytics was associated with a reduction of 0.04 exacerbations per participant per month (95% CI -0.04 to -0.03) compared with placebo; that is about 0.48 per year, or one exacerbation every two years. There was very high heterogeneity in this outcome (I(2) = 87%) so results need to be interpreted with caution.The number of days of disability per month also fell (mean difference (MD) -0.48; 95% CI -0.65 to -0.30) in 12 trials on 2305 participants. There was no clinically important improvement in lung function or consistent impact on quality of life with mucolytics. Mucolytic treatment was not associated with any significant increase in adverse effects, including mortality (Peto OR 0.75; 95% CI 0.35 to 1.64) in six trials on 1821 participants.
Authors' conclusions: In participants with chronic bronchitis or COPD, treatment with a mucolytic may produce a small reduction in acute exacerbations, but may have little or no effect on the overall quality of life. The effects on exacerbations shown in early trials were larger than those found in the more recent studies. This may be because the earlier smaller trials were at higher risk of selection or publication bias, so the benefits of treatment may not be as large as suggested by the previous evidence.