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Systemic corticosteroids for acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

BACKGROUND: COPD is a common condition, mainly related to smoking. The burden of the disease is increasing and it is projected to rank fifth in 2020 for the world-wide burden of disease. Acute exacerbations of COPD, usually related to superimposed infection occur commonly and systemic corticosteroids are widely used in their management in combination with other treatments including antibiotics, oxygen supplementation and bronchodilators.

OBJECTIVES: To determine the efficacy of corticosteroids, administered either parenterally or orally, on the outcome in patients with acute exacerbations of COPD.

SEARCH STRATEGY: Searches were carried out using the Cochrane Airways Group COPD RCT register with additional studies sought in the bibliographies of randomised controlled trials and review articles. Authors of identified randomised controlled trials were contacted for other published and unpublished studies. The last search was carried out in August 2004.

SELECTION CRITERIA: Randomised controlled trials comparing corticosteroids, administered either parenterally or orally, with appropriate placebo. Other interventions e.g. bronchodilators and antibiotics were standardised. Clinical studies of acute asthma were excluded.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Data was extracted independently by two reviewers. Outcome data was sent to authors for verification. All trials were combined using Review Manager (version 4.2.4) for analyses.

MAIN RESULTS: Ten studies were identified that fulfilled the inclusion criteria. There were significantly fewer treatment failures within thirty days in patients given corticosteroid treatment, odds ratio 0.48; 95% confidence interval 0.34 to 0.68 and Hazard Ratio 0.78; 95% confidence interval 0.63 to 0.97. It would have been necessary to treat 9 patients (95%CI 6 to 14) with systemic corticosteroids to avoid one treatment failure in this time period. There was no significant difference in mortality. The early FEV1, up to 72 hours, showed a significant treatment benefit, weighted mean difference 140 mls (95% confidence interval 80-200 mls), although this benefit was not found for later time points. There was a significant improvement in breathlessness and blood gases between 6 - 72 hours after treatment. There was an increased likelihood of an adverse drug reaction with corticosteroid treatment, odds ratio 2.29; 95% confidence interval 1.55 to 3.38. Overall one extra adverse effect occurred for every 6 people treated (95% CI 4 to 10). The risk of hyperglycaemia was significantly increased, odds ratio 5.48; 95% confidence interval 1.58 to 18.96.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Treatment of an exacerbation of COPD with oral or parenteral corticosteroids significantly reduces treatment failure and the need for additional medical treatment . It increases the rate of improvement in lung function and dyspnoea over the first 72 hours, but at a significantly increased risk of an adverse drug reaction.

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