The role of the small airways in the pathophysiology of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Ther Adv Respir Dis. 2015 Dec;9(6):281-93. doi: 10.1177/1753465815588064. Epub 2015 Jun 2.


Chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), represent a major social and economic burden for worldwide health systems. During recent years, increasing attention has been directed to the role of small airways in respiratory diseases, and their exact contribution to the pathophysiology of asthma and COPD continues to be clarified. Indeed, it has been suggested that small airways play a distinct role in specific disease phenotypes. Besides providing information on small airways structure and diagnostic procedures, this review therefore aims to present updated and evidence-based findings on the role of small airways in the pathophysiology of asthma and COPD. Most of the available information derives from either pathological studies or review articles and there are few data on the natural history of small airways disease in the onset or progression of asthma and COPD. Comparisons between studies on the role of small airways are hard to draw because both asthma and COPD are highly heterogeneous conditions. Most studies have been performed in small population samples, and different techniques to characterize aspects of small airways function have been employed in order to assess inflammation and remodelling. Most methods of assessing small airways dysfunction have been largely confined to research purposes, but some data are encouraging, supporting the utilization of certain techniques into daily clinical practice, particularly for early-stage diseases, when subjects are often asymptomatic and routine pulmonary function tests may be within normal ranges. In this context further clinical trials and real-life feedback on large populations are desirable.

Keywords: COPD; asthma; pathophysiology; phenotype; small airways.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Asthma / diagnosis
  • Asthma / metabolism
  • Asthma / physiopathology*
  • Asthma / therapy
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lung / metabolism
  • Lung / pathology
  • Lung / physiopathology*
  • Phenotype
  • Prognosis
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / diagnosis
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / metabolism
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / physiopathology*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / therapy
  • Respiratory Function Tests


  • Biomarkers