Mechanisms of acute exacerbation of respiratory symptoms in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Eur J Clin Invest. 2013 May;43(5):510-21. doi: 10.1111/eci.12064. Epub 2013 Mar 12.


Exacerbations of chronic obstructive respiratory disease (ECOPD) are acute events characterized by worsening of the patient's respiratory symptoms, particularly dyspnoea, leading to change in medical treatment and/or hospitalisation. AECOP are considered respiratory diseases, with reference to the respiratory nature of symptoms and to the involvement of airways and lung. Indeed respiratory infections and/or air pollution are the main causes of ECOPD. They cause an acute inflammation of the airways and the lung on top of the chronic inflammation that is associated with COPD. This acute inflammation is responsible of the development of acute respiratory symptoms (in these cases the term ECOPD is appropriate). However, the acute inflammation caused by infections/pollutants is almost associated with systemic inflammation, that may cause acute respiratory symptoms through decompensation of concomitant chronic diseases (eg acute heart failure, thromboembolism, etc) almost invariably associated with COPD. Most concomitant chronic diseases share with COPD not only the underlying chronic inflammation of the target organs (i.e. lungs, myocardium, vessels, adipose tissue), but also clinical manifestations like fatigue and dyspnoea. For this reason, in patients with multi-morbidity (eg COPD with chronic heart failure and hypertension, etc), the exacerbation of respiratory symptoms may be particularly difficult to investigate, as it may be caused by exacerbation of COPD and/or ≥ comorbidity, (e.g. decompensated heart failure, arrhythmias, thromboembolisms) without necessarily involving the airways and lung. In these cases the term ECOPD is inappropriate and misleading.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acute-Phase Reaction / physiopathology
  • Hospitalization / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / physiopathology
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / physiopathology*
  • Respiratory Distress Syndrome / physiopathology*
  • Severity of Illness Index