Should I routinely treat my patients with acute COPD exacerbation with antibiotics?

The answer is “NO”! With an estimated 20% to 50% of acute chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) exacerbations attributed to noninfectious factors (1,2), routine inclusion of antibiotics in the treatment of this condition is not only unnecessary but potentially harmful.

Although the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) guidelines recommends the use of antibiotics in patients who have dyspnea, increased sputum volume, and increased sputum purulence—or at least 2 of these 3 criteria when sputum purulence is one of them (3)—, these recommendations are not based on robust evidence and have not been widely corroborated (2,4-6).

That’s why the findings of a 2019 New England Journal of Medicine study (PACE) supporting the use of serum C-reactive protein (CRP) as an adjunctive test in COPD exacerbation is particularly welcome (1). In this multicenter randomized controlled trial performed in the U.K., the following CRP guidelines (arrived from prior studies) were provided to primary care clinicians to be used as part of their decision making in determining which patients with COPD exacerbation may not need antibiotic therapy:
• CRP less than 20 mg/L: Antibiotics unlikely to be beneficial
• CRP 20-40 mg/L: Antibiotics may be beneficial, mainly if purulent sputum is present
• CRP greater than 40 mg/L: Antibiotics likely to be beneficial

Adoption of these guidelines resulted in significantlly fewer patients being placed on antibiotics without evidence of harm over a 4-week follow-up period (1).  Despite its inherent limitations (eg, single country, outpatient setting), CRP testing may be a step in the right direction in curbing unnecessary use of antibiotics in COPD exacerbation.  


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1. Butler CC, Gillespie D, White P, et al. C-reactive protein testing to guide antibiotic prescribing for COPD exacerbations. N Engl J Med 2019;381:111-20.
2. Llor C, Moragas A, Hernandez S, et al. Efficacy of antibiotic therapy for acute exacerbations of mild to moderate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2012;186:716-23.
3. Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. Global strategy for the diagnosis, management, and prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. GOLD, 2019 (
4. Brett AS, Al-Hasan MN. COPD exacerbations—A target for antibiotic stewardship. N Engl J Med 2018;381:174-75.
5. Miravitlles M, Moragas A, Hernandez S, et al. Is it possible to identify exacerbations of mild to moderate COPD that do not require antibiotic treatment? Chest 2013;144:1571-7.
6. Van Vezen P, Ter Riet G, Bresser P, et al. Doxycycline for outpatient-treated acute exacerbations of COPD: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Lancet Respir Med 2017;5:492-9.

Should I routinely treat my patients with acute COPD exacerbation with antibiotics?

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