The Research Review
by Kenny Navarro

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects 24 million Americans each year. In that same amount of time, approximately 1.5 million patients with the disease will seek emergency treatment, and half of those will require hospital admission (Mannino, Homa, Akinbami, Ford, & Redd, 2002).

It is the third leading cause of death in the United States (Kochanek, Xu, Murphy, Miniño, & Kung, 2011). One in every three patients with an acute exacerbation of COPD will die within a year of first contact with the EMS system (Steinmetz, Rasmussen, & Nielsen, 2006).

The American Thoracic Society and the European Respiratory Society (2004) define COPD as a progressive disease characterized by an abnormal inflammatory response within the lung tissue resulting in airflow limitation.

Experts subdivide COPD into two clinical conditions that are often present in the same patient simultaneously. Chronic bronchitis develops when glands along the walls of the central airways enlarge, resulting in excessive mucus production and inflammation of the cartilaginous airways (Mullen, Wright, Wiggs, Pare, & Hogg, 1985; Reid, 1960). The second condition, emphysema, occurs when the airway walls distal to the terminal bronchioles begin to break down, causing enlargement of the airspaces and loss of alveolar attachment, which contributes to peripheral airway collapse (Lamb et al., 1993).

One significant risk factor for the development of COPD is cigarette smoking. In general, the more a person smokes, the greater chances he or she has of developing COPD (Forey, Thornton, & Lee, 2011), although not all cigarette smokers develop clinically apparent COPD (Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease [GOLD], 2011). Long-term smoking results in a cycle of repeated lung injury followed by attempts at self-repair and tissue remodeling (Corbridge, Wilken, Kapella, & Gronkiewicz, 2012).

COPD is non-reversible: Once the condition develops, eliminating exposure to cigarette smoke may only halt or slow the progression of the disease (Anthonisen, Connett, & Murray, for the Lung Health Study Research Group, 2002).

Patients with COPD often call EMS during periods of exacerbation, during which the symptoms worsen rapidly. Exacerbations are characterized by a change in the patient's baseline condition that is sufficient for a change in the management strategy (American Thoracic Society and the European Respiratory Society, 2004). About half to three-quarters of all exacerbations are the result of respiratory infections, with about 10 percent resulting from air pollution (Abbatecola, Fumagalli, Bonardi, & Guffanti, 2011).

Just prior to exacerbation, symptoms such as dyspnea, sore throat and cough worsen (Seemungal, Donaldson, Bhowmik, Jeffries, & Wedzicha, 2000). But airflow obstruction remains relatively normal with mild exacerbations (Saetta et al., 1994) and only slightly reduced with more severe exacerbations (Seemungal, Donaldson, Bhowmik, Jeffries, & Wedzicha, 2000).

The primary factor contributing to poor gas exchange during severe exacerbations is ventilation-perfusion mismatch, or the inequality between the volume of air flowing into the alveolar spaces and the volume of blood flowing the through the pulmonary capillaries (Barberà et al., 1997). This is likely caused by the increased work of breathing, yielding increased oxygen consumption by the respiratory muscles (Barberà et al., 1997).

Supplemental oxygen administration remains at the center of the prehospital management of acute COPD exacerbation. The goal of oxygen therapy is to keep the oxygen saturation values above 90 percent when measured by pulse oximetry (American Thoracic Society and the European Respiratory Society, 2004). Attempting to Increase the value much greater than that does not confirm significantly greater benefit and may actually lead to increased carbon dioxide retention and respiratory acidosis (American Thoracic Society and the European Respiratory Society, 2004).

A recent prehospital evaluation of oxygen administration in patients with a confirmed diagnosis of COPD (Austin, Wills, Blizzard, Walters, & Wood-Baker, 2010) found a significant increase in mortality when paramedics administered high-flow oxygen compared to oxygen administration titrated to pulse oximetry values (9 percent and 2 percent, respectively).

When delivering oxygen, EMS personnel should start with a nasal cannula or a venturi mask (American Thoracic Society and the European Respiratory Society, 2004).

For patients with respiratory rates greater than 24 per minute or capnography measurements above normal, EMS personnel should consider the use of non-invasive positive pressure ventilation (NPPV) (American Thoracic Society and the European Respiratory Society, 2004). NPPV increases alveolar ventilation, thus improving arterial blood gas measurements (Diaz et al., 1997).

One form of NPPV that is popular in the prehospital setting is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) ventilation. CPAP reduces oxygen consumption of the respiratory muscles by reducing the work of breathing (Appendini et al., 1994). Low oxygen concentration CPAP (28-30 percent) is safe and effective (Bledsoe et al., 2012) and may be a reasonable alternative to higher oxygen concentration CPAP.

There are no medications currently available that can reverse the physiological changes associated with COPD once they occur. Head-to-head comparisons of ipratropium bromide with beta agonists do not demonstrate an advantage of one medication over the other (Brown, McCrory, & White, 2001).

In addition, there is no evidence that a combination of the two medications offers any short or long term advantages of ether of the medications used alone (Nannini, Cates, Lasserson, & Poole, 2007). Administration of systemic corticosteroids significantly improves lung function and lowers the risk of future exacerbations, although there is still controversy about the optimal dose and duration of therapy (Albert, Martin, & Lewis, 1980; Quon, Gan, & Sin, 2008).

Exacerbation of COPD is a frequent and often life-threatening prehospital event. A thorough assessment performed by competent EMS personnel is critical to patient survival:

  • Administer oxygen by nasal cannula while monitoring the patient's pulse oximetry and capnography values closely
  • Consider using NPPV early in patients with clinical evidence of hypercapnea or significantly increased work of breathing.
  • Inhaled bronchodilators may provide relief for patients associated bronchospasm, although the optimal medication remains unknown.
  • Finally, systemic corticosteroids may be beneficial; however oral formulations of the drugs may be as effective as parenterally administered doses (Quon, Gan, & Sin, 2008).



Abbatecola, A. M., Fumagalli, A., Bonardi, D., & Guffanti, E. E. (2011). Practical management problems of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the elderly: Acute exacerbations. Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine, 17(suppl 1), S49–S54. doi:10.1097/01.mcp.0000410748.28582.22

Albert, R. K., Martin, T. R., & Lewis, S. W. (1980). Controlled clinical trial of methylprednisolone in patients with chronic bronchitis and acute respiratory insufficiency. Annals of Internal Medicine, 92(6), 753–758.

American Thoracic Society, European Respiratory Society. (2004). Standards for the diagnosis and management of patients with COPD. Retrieved from

Anthonisen, N. R., Connett, J. E., & Murray, R. P, for the Lung Health Study Research Group. (2002). Smoking and lung function of Lung Health Study participants after 11 years. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 166(5), 675–679. doi:10.1164/rccm.2112096

Appendini, L., Patessio, A., Zanaboni, S., Carone, N., GuKow, B., Donner, C. F., Rossi, A. (1994). Physiologic effects of positive end expiratory pressure and mask pressure support during exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 149(5), 1069–1076.

Austin, M. A., Wills, K. E., Blizzard, L., Walters, E. H., & Wood-Baker, W. (2010). Effect of high flow oxygen on mortality in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients in prehospital setting: Randomised controlled trial. British Medical Journal, 341, c5462. doi:10.1136/bmj.c5462

Barberà, J. A., Roca, J., Ferrer, A., Félez, M. A., Díaz, O., Roger, N., & Rodriguez-Roisin, R. (1997). Mechanisms of worsening gas exchange during acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. European Respiratory Journal, 10(6), 1285–1291. doi:10.1183/09031936.97.10061285

Bledsoe, B. E., Anderson, E., Hodnick, R., Johnson, L., Johnson, S., & Dievendorf, E. (2012). Low-fractional oxygen concentration continuous positive airway pressure is effective in the prehospital setting. Prehospital Emergency Care, 16(2), 217–221. doi:10.3109/10903127.2011.640765

Brown, C. D., McCrory, D. C., & White, J. (2001). Inhaled short-acting beta2-agonists versus ipratropium for acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 1, CD002984. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD002984

Corbridge, S., Wilken, L., Kapella, M. C., & Gronkiewicz, C. (2012). An evidence bassed approach to COPD: Part 1. American Journal of Nursing, 112(3), 46-57. doi:10.1097/01.NAJ.0000412639.08764.21

Diaz, O., Iglesia, R., Ferrer, M., Zavala, E., Santos, C., Wagner, P. D., Roca, J., & Rodriguez-Roisin, R. (1997). Effects of non invasive ventilation on pulmonary gas exchange and hemodynamics duricng acute hypercapnic exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 156(6), 1840–1845.

Forey, B. A., Thornton, A. J., & Lee, P. N. (2011). Systematic review with meta-analysis of the epidemiological evidence relating smoking to COPD, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. BMC Pulmonary Medicine, 11, 36. doi:10.1186/1471-2466-11-36

Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD). (2011). Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management and Prevention of COPD. Retrieved from

Kochanek, K. D., Xu, J., Murphy, S. L., Miniño, A. M., & Kung, H., (2011). Deaths: Preliminary data for 2009. National Vital Statistics Reports, 59(4), Hyattsville, MD: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lamb, D., McLean, A., Gillooly, M., Warren, P. M., Gould, G. A., & MacNee, W. (1993). Relation between distal airspace size, bronchiolar attachments, and lung function. Thorax, 48(10), 1012–1017.

Mannino, D. M., Homa, D. M., Akinbami, L. J., Ford, E. S., & Redd, S. C. (2002). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease surveillance—United States, 1971-2000. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports Surveillance Summary, 51(6), 1-16.

Mullen, J. B., Wright, J. L., Wiggs, B. R., Pare, P. D., & Hogg, J. C. (1985). Reassessment of inflammation of airways in chronic bronchitis. British Medical Journal (Clinical Research Edition), 291(6504), 1235–1239.

Nannini, L. J., Cates, C. J., Lasserson, T. J., & Poole, P. (2007). Combined corticosteroid and long-acting beta-agonist in one inhaler versus inhaled steroids for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 17(4), CD006826. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD006829

Quon, B. S., Gan, W. Q., & Sin, D. D. (2008). Contemporary management of acute exacerbations of COPD. A systematic review and metaanalysis. Chest, 133(3), 756–766. doi: 10.1378/chest.07-1207

Reid, L. (1960). Measurement of the bronchial mucous gland layer: A diagnostic yardstick in chronic bronchitis. Thorax, 15, 132–141.

Saetta, M., Di Stefano, A., Maestrelli, P., Turato, G., Ruggieri, M. P., Roggeri, A., Calcagni, P., Mapp, C. E., Ciaccia, A., & Fabbri, L. M. (1994). Airway eosinophilia in chronic bronchitis during exacerbations. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 150(6 pt 1), 1646–1652.

Seemungal, T. A., Donaldson, G. C., Bhowmik, A., Jeffries, D. J., & Wedzicha, J. A. (2000). Time course and recovery of exacerbations in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 161(5), 1608–1613.

Steinmetz, J., Rasmussen, L. S., & Nielsen, S. L. (2006). Long-term prognosis for patients with COPD treated in the prehospital setting: Is it influenced by hospital admission? Chest, 130(3), 676-680. doi:10.1378/chest.130.3.676

Kenny Navarro is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas. He also serves as the AHA Training Center Coordinator for Tarrant County College. Mr. Navarro serves as an Emergency Cardiovascular Care Content Consultant for the American Heart Association, served on two education subcommittees for NIH-funded research projects, as the Coordinator for the National EMS Education Standards Project, and as an expert writer for the National EMS Education Standards Implementation Team. Send correspondence concerning any articles in this section to Kenneth W. Navarro, The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas, 5323 Harry Hines Blvd MC 8890, Dallas, Texas 75390-8890, or e-mail

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