Multifaceted activity of N-acetyl-l-cysteine in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Expert Rev Respir Med. 2018 Aug;12(8):693-708. doi: 10.1080/17476348.2018.1495562. Epub 2018 Jul 17.


N-acetyl-l-cysteine (NAC), a derivative of the naturally occurring amino acid l-cysteine, is a mucolytic agent that may also act as an antioxidant by providing cysteine intracellularly for increased production of glutathione. It is also used for the treatment of acetaminophen overdose. Areas covered: The recent international recommendations for the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) report that NAC, because of its mucolytic activity, reduces acute exacerbation of COPD (AECOPD) with a modest improvement in health status. However, NAC is a pleiotropic drug with heterogeneous pharmacologic characteristics that certainly include mucolytic activity, but also has anti-infective properties and specific antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in the airways. Thus, the mechanisms leading to the protective role of this agent against AECOPD need to be adequately addressed. Expert commentary: The protective effect of NAC against AECOPD seems to be related not only to its well-documented mucolytic activity but also to activation of antioxidant pathways, inhibition of pro-oxidant and inflammatory pathways, and modulation of human bronchial tone. Thus, the dogma that NAC acts prevalently as a mucolytic agent is outdated, and the hypothesis that its anti-inflammatory effect is secondary to the antioxidant activity has been rejected.

Keywords: COPD; N-acetyl-l-cysteine; anti-inflammatory effect; antioxidant effect; exacerbation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcysteine / therapeutic use*
  • Antioxidants / therapeutic use*
  • Bronchi / metabolism*
  • Expectorants / therapeutic use*
  • Glutathione / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / drug therapy*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / metabolism
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism


  • Antioxidants
  • Expectorants
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Glutathione
  • Acetylcysteine