Clinical Significance of Symptoms in Smokers with Preserved Pulmonary Function

N Engl J Med. 2016 May 12;374(19):1811-21. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1505971.


Background: Currently, the diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) requires a ratio of forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) to forced vital capacity (FVC) of less than 0.70 as assessed by spirometry after bronchodilator use. However, many smokers who do not meet this definition have respiratory symptoms.

Methods: We conducted an observational study involving 2736 current or former smokers and controls who had never smoked and measured their respiratory symptoms using the COPD Assessment Test (CAT; scores range from 0 to 40, with higher scores indicating greater severity of symptoms). We examined whether current or former smokers who had preserved pulmonary function as assessed by spirometry (FEV1:FVC ≥0.70 and an FVC above the lower limit of the normal range after bronchodilator use) and had symptoms (CAT score, ≥10) had a higher risk of respiratory exacerbations than current or former smokers with preserved pulmonary function who were asymptomatic (CAT score, <10) and whether those with symptoms had different findings from the asymptomatic group with respect to the 6-minute walk distance, lung function, or high-resolution computed tomographic (HRCT) scan of the chest.

Results: Respiratory symptoms were present in 50% of current or former smokers with preserved pulmonary function. The mean (±SD) rate of respiratory exacerbations among symptomatic current or former smokers was significantly higher than the rates among asymptomatic current or former smokers and among controls who never smoked (0.27±0.67 vs. 0.08±0.31 and 0.03±0.21 events, respectively, per year; P<0.001 for both comparisons). Symptomatic current or former smokers, regardless of history of asthma, also had greater limitation of activity, slightly lower FEV1, FVC, and inspiratory capacity, and greater airway-wall thickening without emphysema according to HRCT than did asymptomatic current or former smokers. Among symptomatic current or former smokers, 42% used bronchodilators and 23% used inhaled glucocorticoids.

Conclusions: Although they do not meet the current criteria for COPD, symptomatic current or former smokers with preserved pulmonary function have exacerbations, activity limitation, and evidence of airway disease. They currently use a range of respiratory medications without any evidence base. (Funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health; SPIROMICS number, NCT01969344.).

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Asthma / complications
  • Bronchodilator Agents / therapeutic use
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Female
  • Forced Expiratory Volume
  • Humans
  • Lung / diagnostic imaging
  • Lung / physiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / complications
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / diagnosis
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / physiopathology*
  • Smoking / physiopathology*
  • Symptom Assessment
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed
  • Vital Capacity


  • Bronchodilator Agents

Associated data