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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: New Treatments Against an Old Foe

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: New Treatments Against an Old Foe

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is characterized by long-standing airflow limitation that usually results from emphysema or chronic bronchitis. More than 16 million Americans have COPD, which is now the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. COPD is also a major cause of morbidity and a leading contributor to hospital admissions and office visits.1

COPD is often not recognized until late in its course, when lung function is markedly reduced and the patient has become symptomatic. Early recognition and diagnosis can halt-or at least slow-the progression of this disease.

Here we focus on prevention and early identification of COPD; in our second article on page 30, we discuss drug therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, lung volume reduction surgery, and transplantation.


Smoking cessation and abstinence are key primary prevention strategies for COPD. Identifying high-risk groups, including smokers and those with a family history of premature COPD or alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency, facilitates early detection and initiation of therapy (secondary prevention). Vaccination with the influenza and pneumococcal vaccines can reduce the risk of infection and consequent morbidity and mortality in patients with COPD.


Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD and promotes ongoing deterioration of lung function. The dictum "It's never too late to quit" continues to ring true. Smoking cessation remains one of the only interventions shown to reduce morbidity and mortality in patients with COPD. In contrast, continued smoking accelerates the ongoing decline in lung function, increases susceptibility to respiratory infections and bronchoconstriction, and contributes significantly to the development of other comorbid diseases in this (usually older) population.

Cigar smoking is also a known risk factor for COPD. Between 1993 and 2002, cigar consumption nearly doubled. A cohort study with approximately 18,000 men-encompassing several decades of follow-up-demonstrated an increased risk of COPD, coronary heart disease, upper aerodigestive tract disorders, and lung cancer in regular cigar smokers. This was a dose-response effect.2

During office visits, many smokers are not advised to quit or given smoking cessation assistance. Therefore, we recommend the following for every visit3:

Record tobacco-use status along with vital signs.

Offer simple smoking cessation advice and assistance to current smokers ("Ask, Advise, Assess, Assist").

Nicotine replacement therapy. These therapies can help patients cope with withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability and early morning craving, that commonly occur in those who smoke more than 10 cigarettes daily (Table 1). Exercise caution in recommending these products to patients with recent (within the previous 4 weeks) myocardial infarction, severe arrhythmias, or angina. Both the nicotine patch and gum are available over-the-counter in the United States; the patch is generally preferred because it is easier to use.

Two alternative formulations of nicotine replacement are the nasal spray and oral inhaler. The inhaler is a plastic rod that provides a nicotine vapor (when puffed) that may help with the oral fixation of smoking. These products may be considered for highly dependent smokers and are preferred by some patients; the delivery of nicotine is quicker than with other forms of nicotine replacement.

Bupropion. This antidepressant has been shown to improve smoking cessation rates at 1 year, either when used alone or with a nicotine patch.4,5 Treatment is typically started 1 week before the quit date at a dosage of 150 mg/d for 3 days, then 150 mg twice daily for 7 to 12 weeks. The Treating Tobacco Use and Dependence (TTUD) guidelines advocate maintenance therapy for up to 6 months3; however, a clinical trial showed that extending treatment with bupropion to 52 weeks improved 1-year abstinence rates by approximately 13%.6 Major side effects are headache and insomnia. Exercise caution in recommending this medication to patients with a history of seizures.

Clonidine. Oral or transdermal administration of this centrally acting antihypertensive agent can diminish withdrawal symptoms (such as craving and anxiety) and improve cessation rates in severely addicted smokers. Use of this agent is limited by a high incidence of side effects, such as sedation, dry mouth, and dizziness (23% to 92%; median, 71%), compared with placebo (4% to 61%; median, 10%).3 The sedation may be useful in those with extreme agitation and anxiety that is unrelieved by nicotine replacement therapy.

Clonidine may be used in addition to, or in place of, nicotine replacement. Overall, it is considered second-line therapy and should be reserved for those with severe nicotine dependence and withdrawal symptoms in whom nicotine replacement therapy or bupropion has failed.3 It is best used for short-term therapy (3 to 10 weeks).

Frequently, many attempts are made before smoking cessation is successful. If one modality fails, encourage patients to try another. Combination therapy may be beneficial in difficult cases.

Resources for patients. Smoking cessation rates vary considerably but are highest when behavioral and supportive therapies are combined with nicotine replacement and/or treatment with bupropion. The key to success is close follow-up and support during the quitting period. Self-help resources are available through the American Lung Association (800-LUNG-USA [800-586-4872],, the American Cancer Society (800-227-2345,, and the American Heart Association (800-242-8721, www.

Some pharmaceutical companies offer telephone-based support that can help reduce the need for face-to-face encounters. The bottom line is that any method of smoking cessation can be successful-and with supportive counseling, quit rates can be doubled (from 15% to 30%) at 6 months.3,7,8


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