Why are patients with acute exacerbation of COPD at higher risk of venous thromboembolism (VTE)?

Patients admitted to the hospital for acute exacerbation of COPD are generally regarded as being at high risk of venous thromboembolism (VTE) (prevalence 5%-29%), possibly due to the frequent coexistence of other risk factors, such as immobility, history of smoking, and venous stasis.1 The exact mechanism(s) behind this association remains poorly understood, however.

Among patients with moderate-very severe COPD (GOLD criteria stage II-IV),  high BMI, low exercise tolerance, history of pneumothorax, congestive heart failure, and peripheral vascular disease have also been associated with VTE.1

Systemic inflammation has also been implicated in increasing the risk of VTE in patients with COPD. Although the pathophysiology of COPD is largely defined by the local inflammatory response to airway injury, evidence suggests that there is also a systemic inflammatory response in COPD.2,3 This systemic inflammation could in turn contribute to the increased risk of vascular disease, including VTE, coronary artery disease, and cerebrovascular disease.4

Bonus pearl: Did you know that VTE may be 3x more prevalent among patients with COPD exacerbation without known cause (vs those with identifiable cause) and is associated with a 1-year mortality of 61.9%! 5


  1. Kim V, Goel N, Gangar J, et al. Risk factors for venous thromboembolism in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Chronic Obstr Pulm Dis 2014;1: 239-249. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25844397
  2. Lankeit M, Held M. Incidence of venous thromboembolism in COPD: linking inflammation and thrombosis? Eur Respir J 2016;47(2):369-73. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26828045
  3. Sinden NJ1, Stockley RA. Systemic inflammation and comorbidity in COPD: a result of ‘overspill’ of inflammatory mediators from the lungs? Review of the evidence. Thorax 2010;65:930-6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20627907
  4. King PT. Inflammation in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and its role in cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. Clinical and Translational Medicine 2015;4:26. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4518022/
  5. Gunen H, Gulbas G, In E, et al. Venous thromboemboli and exacerbations of COPD. Eur Respir J 2010;36:1243-8.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19926740 

Contributed by Camilo Campo, Medical Student, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.

Why are patients with acute exacerbation of COPD at higher risk of venous thromboembolism (VTE)?

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