Should my patient with COPD and recurrent exacerbations undergo evaluation for antibody deficiency?

Although there are no consensus guidelines on when to evaluate patients with COPD for antibody deficiency, we should at least consider this possibility in patients with recurrent exacerbations despite maximal inhaled therapy (long-acting beta-2 agonist-LABA, long-acting muscarinic antagonist-LAMA and inhaled corticosteroids).1

Couple of retrospective studies of common variable immunodeficiency (CVID) in patients with COPD have reported a prevalence ranging from 2.4% to 4.5%. 1 In another study involving 42 patients thought to have had 2 or more moderate to severe COPD exacerbations per year—often despite maximal inhaled therapy— 29 were diagnosed  with antibody deficiency syndrome, including 20 with specific antibody deficiency (SAD), 8 with CVID and 1 with selective IgA deficiency.2  Although systemic corticosteroids may lower IgG and IgA levels, the majority of the patients in this study were not taking any corticosteroids at the time of their evaluation.

In another study involving patients undergoing lung transplantation, pre-transplant mild hypogammaglobulinemia was more prevalent among those with COPD (15%) compared to other lung conditions (eg, cystic fibrosis), independent of corticosteroid use.3  A favorable impact of immunoglobulin therapy or chronic suppressive antibiotics on reducing recurrent episodes of COPD exacerbation in patients with antibody deficiency has also been reported, supporting the clinical relevance of hypogammaglobulinemia in these patients. 2,4 

Remember that even normal quantitative serum immunoglobulin levels (IgG, IgA, and IgM) do not necessarily rule out antibody deficiency. Measurement of IgG subclasses, as well as more specific antibodies, such as those against pneumococcal polysaccharides may be required for further evaluation.

See a related pearl at

Contributed in part by Sydney Montesi, MD, Mass General Hospital, Boston, MA.


  1. Berger M, Geng B, Cameron DW, et al. Primary immune deficiency diseases as unrecognized causes of chronic respiratory disease. Resp Med 2017;132:181-188.
  2. McCullagh BN, Comelias AP, Ballas ZK, et al. Antibody deficiency in patients with frequent exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). PLoS ONE 2017; 12: e0172437.
  3. Yip NH, Lederer DJ, Kawut SM, et al. Immunoglobulin G levels before and after lung transplantation 2006;173:917-21.
  4. Cowan J, Gaudet L, Mulpuru S, et al. A retrospective longitudinal within-subject risk interval analysis of immunoglobulin treatment for recurrent acute exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. PLoS ONE 2015;10:e0142205.

If you liked this post, sign up under MENU and catch future pearls straight into your mailbox!

Should my patient with COPD and recurrent exacerbations undergo evaluation for antibody deficiency?

My 65 year old patient has had several bouts of bacterial pneumonia in the past 2 years. Her total serum immunoglobulins are within normal range. Could she still be immunodeficient?

Absolutely! Besides HIV infection which should be excluded in all patients with recurrent bouts of bacterial pneumonia irrespective of age, “selective polysaccharide antibody deficiency”, also known as “specific antibody deficiency” or SAD, should also be excluded (1-3). SAD in adults with recurrent pneumonia is not rare, having been reported in about ~8% of such patients (4).  

Think of SAD when your adult patient presents with recurrent bouts of bacterial pneumonia  despite having normal serum total immunoglobulin (IgG, IgA, and IgM) levels and IgG subtypes (1-3).  These patients have a normal response to tetanus toxoid (a protein) but cannot mount adequate antibody response against polysaccharide antigens of pathogens such as pneumococcus.  

One way to diagnose SAD in a suspected patient is through vaccination with 23-valent pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23).  In patients with low baseline antibody titers to many of the capsular types of pneumococcus included in the PPSV23,  a suboptimal response (defined by the lab) 4 weeks after vaccination with PPSV23 is suggestive of SAD. Remember that if your patient has already been vaccinated with the 13 valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13), you can only evaluate for the response to serotypes included in the  PPSV23 only.

Although there are no randomized-controlled studies and treatment should be individualized, immunoglobulin replacement may reduce the risk of future bouts of pneumonia in SAD (2-3). 

Liked this post? Download the app on your smart phone and sign up below to catch future pearls right into your inbox, all for free!

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.



1. Cohn JA, Skorpinski E, Cohn JR. Prevention of pneumococcal infection in a patient with normal immunoglobulin levels but impaired polysaccharide antibody production. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2006;97:603-5.

2. Cheng YK, Kecker PA, O’Byrne MM, Weiler CR. Clinical and laboratory characteristics of 75 patients with specific polysaccharide antibody deficiency syndrome. Ann Alergy Asthma Immunol 2006;97:306-311.

3. Perez E, Bonilla FA, Orange JS, et al. Specific antibody deficiency: controversies in diagnosis and management. Front Immunol 207;8:586.

4. Ekdahl K, Braconier JH, Svanborg C. Immunoglobulin deficiencies and impaired immune response to polysaccharide antigens in adult patients with recurrent community acquired pneumonia. Scand J Infect Dis 1997;29:401-7.


My 65 year old patient has had several bouts of bacterial pneumonia in the past 2 years. Her total serum immunoglobulins are within normal range. Could she still be immunodeficient?