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BACKGROUND--Bacterial infections of the lower airways during an exacerbation in patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may be the cause of an exacerbation or the consequence of a viral infection or an increase in airways limitation. To determine whether bacterial infection is an important component in the pathogenesis of an exacerbation, the effects of antimicrobial treatment must be studied. METHODS--Patients with asthma or COPD seen in general practice were studied in a double blind randomised manner to investigate whether the antimicrobial drugs amoxicillin (500 mg three times daily), cotrimoxazole (960 mg twice daily), or a placebo, each when added to a short course of oral corticosteroids, can accelerate recovery from exacerbations. Patients were instructed to contact their own physician early in the morning when complaints of increased shortness of breath, wheezing, or exacerbations of cough with or without sputum production occurred. Treatment effects were evaluated over the next 14 days by studying symptom scores (wheeze, dyspnoea, cough with and without mucus production, and awakening with dyspnoea), peak expiratory flow values (PEF, expressed as % predicted), and sublingual temperature. Bacteriological study of the sputum was made at the onset of an exacerbation and 7, 21 and 35 days afterwards. RESULTS--Of 195 patients enrolled 71 (36%) contacted their physician for symptoms of an exacerbation. Symptoms improved in all three groups, improvements ranging from 0.54 to 0.75 points per day on a four point scale. PEF% predicted showed improvements in the three groups after the exacerbation, ranging from 0.34% to 0.78% predicted per day, finally returning to baseline values. Sublingual temperature did not change. Six of 71 patients consulted their physician because of a relapse between four and 24 days after the start of treatment. In only two of the 50 sputum samples, collected during an exacerbation, and which contained > or = 10(5) bacteria in culture sensitive to the chosen antibiotic given, did any benefit from antimicrobial treatment occur. During the recovery period sputum purulence improved irrespective of antibiotic treatment. CONCLUSIONS--Antibiotics given with a short course of oral prednisolone during an exacerbation do not accelerate recovery as measured by changes in peak flow and symptom scores in ambulatory patients with mild to moderate asthma or COPD when treated by their general practitioners. Moreover, antibiotics do not reduce the number of relapses after treating an exacerbation.