Antibiotics for exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Oct 29;10(10):CD010257. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010257.pub2.


Background: Many patients with an exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are treated with antibiotics. However, the value of antibiotics remains uncertain, as systematic reviews and clinical trials have shown conflicting results.

Objectives: To assess effects of antibiotics on treatment failure as observed between seven days and one month after treatment initiation (primary outcome) for management of acute COPD exacerbations, as well as their effects on other patient-important outcomes (mortality, adverse events, length of hospital stay, time to next exacerbation).

Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), in the Cochrane Library, MEDLINE, Embase, and other electronically available databases up to 26 September 2018.

Selection criteria: We sought to find randomised controlled trials (RCTs) including people with acute COPD exacerbations comparing antibiotic therapy and placebo and providing follow-up of at least seven days.

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently screened references and extracted data from trial reports. We kept the three groups of outpatients, inpatients, and patients admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) separate for benefit outcomes and mortality because we considered them to be clinically too different to be summarised as a single group. We considered outpatients to have a mild to moderate exacerbation, inpatients to have a severe exacerbation, and ICU patients to have a very severe exacerbation. When authors of primary studies did not report outcomes or study details, we contacted them to request missing data. We calculated pooled risk ratios (RRs) for treatment failure, Peto odds ratios (ORs) for rare events (mortality and adverse events), and mean differences (MDs) for continuous outcomes using random-effects models. We used GRADE to assess the quality of the evidence. The primary outcome was treatment failure as observed between seven days and one month after treatment initiation.

Main results: We included 19 trials with 2663 participants (11 with outpatients, seven with inpatients, and one with ICU patients).For outpatients (with mild to moderate exacerbations), evidence of low quality suggests that currently available antibiotics statistically significantly reduced the risk for treatment failure between seven days and one month after treatment initiation (RR 0.72, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.56 to 0.94; I² = 31%; in absolute terms, reduction in treatment failures from 295 to 212 per 1000 treated participants, 95% CI 165 to 277). Studies providing older antibiotics not in use anymore yielded an RR of 0.69 (95% CI 0.53 to 0.90; I² = 31%). Evidence of low quality from one trial in outpatients suggested no effects of antibiotics on mortality (Peto OR 1.27, 95% CI 0.49 to 3.30). One trial reported no effects of antibiotics on re-exacerbations between two and six weeks after treatment initiation. Only one trial (N = 35) reported health-related quality of life but did not show a statistically significant difference between treatment and control groups.Evidence of moderate quality does not show that currently used antibiotics statistically significantly reduced the risk of treatment failure among inpatients with severe exacerbations (i.e. for inpatients excluding ICU patients) (RR 0.65, 95% CI 0.38 to 1.12; I² = 50%), but trial results remain uncertain. In turn, the effect was statistically significant when trials included older antibiotics no longer in clinical use (RR 0.76, 95% CI 0.58 to 1.00; I² = 39%). Evidence of moderate quality from two trials including inpatients shows no beneficial effects of antibiotics on mortality (Peto OR 2.48, 95% CI 0.94 to 6.55). Length of hospital stay (in days) was similar in antibiotic and placebo groups.The only trial with 93 patients admitted to the ICU showed a large and statistically significant effect on treatment failure (RR 0.19, 95% CI 0.08 to 0.45; moderate-quality evidence; in absolute terms, reduction in treatment failures from 565 to 107 per 1000 treated participants, 95% CI 45 to 254). Results of this trial show a statistically significant effect on mortality (Peto OR 0.21, 95% CI 0.06 to 0.72; moderate-quality evidence) and on length of hospital stay (MD -9.60 days, 95% CI -12.84 to -6.36; low-quality evidence).Evidence of moderate quality gathered from trials conducted in all settings shows no statistically significant effect on overall incidence of adverse events (Peto OR 1.20, 95% CI 0.89 to 1.63; moderate-quality evidence) nor on diarrhoea (Peto OR 1.68, 95% CI 0.92 to 3.07; moderate-quality evidence).

Authors' conclusions: Researchers have found that antibiotics have some effect on inpatients and outpatients, but these effects are small, and they are inconsistent for some outcomes (treatment failure) and absent for other outcomes (mortality, length of hospital stay). Analyses show a strong beneficial effect of antibiotics among ICU patients. Few data are available on the effects of antibiotics on health-related quality of life or on other patient-reported symptoms, and data show no statistically significant increase in the risk of adverse events with antibiotics compared to placebo. These inconsistent effects call for research into clinical signs and biomarkers that can help identify patients who would benefit from antibiotics, while sparing antibiotics for patients who are unlikely to experience benefit and for whom downsides of antibiotics (side effects, costs, and multi-resistance) should be avoided.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Ambulatory Care
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / adverse effects
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Disease Progression
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / classification
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / drug therapy*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / mortality
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Treatment Failure


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents