Polycythemia is Associated with Lower Incidence of Severe COPD Exacerbations in the SPIROMICS Study

Chronic Obstr Pulm Dis. 2021 Jul 28;8(3):326-335. doi: 10.15326/jcopdf.2021.0216.


Secondary polycythemia has long been recognized as a consequence of chronic pulmonary disease and hypoxemia and is associated with lower mortality and fewer hospitalizations among individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)-prescribed long-term oxygen therapy. This study investigates the association of polycythemia with COPD severity, phenotypic features, and respiratory exacerbations in a contemporary and representative sample of individuals with COPD. Current and former smokers with COPD (forced expiratory volume in 1 second [FEV1] to forced vital capacity [FVC] ratio <70%) without a history of hematologic/oncologic disorders were selected from the SubPopulations and InteRmediate Outcomes Measures In COPD Study (SPIROMICS), a multi-center observational cohort. Participants with polycythemia (hemoglobin ≥15g/dL [females] or ≥17g/dL [males]), were compared to individuals without anemia (hemoglobin ≥12g/dL [females] or ≥13g/dL [males]). Cross-sectional outcomes including percent predicted FEV1, respiratory symptoms, quality of life, exercise tolerance, and percentage and distribution of emphysema (voxels<-950 Hounsfield units [HU] at total lung capacity) were evaluated using linear or logistic regression. Longitudinal acute exacerbation of COPD (AECOPD) and severe AECOPD (requiring an emergency department visit or hospitalization) were assessed using zero-inflated negative binomial models. Among 1261 participants, 148 (11.7%) had polycythemia. Average follow-up was 4.2±1.7 years and did not differ by presence of polycythemia. In multivariate analysis, compared to participants with normal hemoglobin, polycythemia was associated with a reduced rate of severe AECOPD (adjusted incidence rate ratio 0.57, 95% CI: 0.33-0.98), lower percent predicted FEV1, lower resting oxygen saturation, increased upper to lower lobe ratio of emphysema, and a greater degree of emphysema, though the latter was attenuated after adjusting for lung function. There were no significant differences in total AECOPD, patient-reported outcomes, or exercise tolerance. These findings suggest that polycythemia, while associated with less favorable physiologic parameters, is not independently associated with symptoms, and is associated with fewer severe exacerbations. Future studies should explore the potentially protective role of increased hemoglobin beyond the correction of anemia.

Keywords: SPIROMICS; acute exacerbation of COPD; polycythemia.