Pulmonary failure as a cause of death in COPD

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Data on the outcome of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are limited. We know that the prognosis is poor when respiratory insufficiency develops, but we have little information on the actual cause of death. Epidemiological studies are suitable for the assessment of the prevalence of the disease, but give no details on the actual cause of death. Age and forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) have been recognized as the best predictors of mortality in studies designed to quantify survival of COPD patients, particularly when the postbronchodilator value is used, as this provides a better estimate of airway and parenchymal damage. Data from Intensive Care Units on acute respiratory failure have several significant limitations. Firstly, it is probable that some patients elect not to undergo intensive treatment for a terminal bout of respiratory failure, particularly if it is not the first episode. Secondly, the actual cause of death is often not described in adequate detail. Hypoxaemia and acidaemia are the main risk factors in acute exacerbation of the disease and the presence of pulmonary infiltrates on chest radiographs worsens the prognosis. A single bout of respiratory failure appears to have no effect on the prognosis of COPD patients after recovery, but there is a consistent increase in mortality after the second episode. It seems possible to manage the majority of episodes of acute respiratory failure with mechanical ventilation administered with noninvasive techniques. When endotracheal intubation is necessary, the prognosis is usually poor and the survival after 1 yr is usually lower than 40%. The role of long-term home mechanical ventilation is still unclear. Results from pivotal studies have been encouraging, although survival is far less impressive than in neuromuscular disorders. In patients with end-stage lung disease, lung transplantation can be considered the only possibility of increasing pulmonary functional capacity. However the technique is reserved only for a highly selected group of patients and data on the long-term outcome are awaited.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)170-175
Number of pages6
JournalMonaldi Archives for Chest Disease - Cardiac Series
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1997


  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Mortality
  • Respiratory insufficiency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine
  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine


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