Prophylactic treatment with N-acetylcysteine (NAC) for 3 months or more is associated with a reduction in the frequency of exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This raises the question of whether treatment with NAC during an acute exacerbation will hasten recovery from the exacerbation.
We have examined this in a randomised, double-blind, placebo controlled trial. Subjects, admitted to hospital with an acute exacerbation of COPD, were randomised within 24 h of admission to treatment with NAC 600 mg b.d. (n = 25) or matching placebo (n = 25). Treatment continued for 7 days or until discharge (whichever occurred first). To be eligible subjects had to be ≥ 50 years, have an FEV1 ≤ 60% predicted, FEV1/VC ≤ 70% and ≥ 10 pack year smoking history. Subjects with asthma, heart failure, pneumonia and other respiratory diseases were excluded. All subjects received concurrent treatment with prednisone 40 mg/day, nebulised salbutamol 5 mg q.i.d and where appropriate antibiotics. FEV1, VC, SaO2 and breathlessness were measured 2 hours after a dose of nebulised salbutamol, at the same time each day. Breathlessness was measured on a seven point Likert scale.
At baseline FEV1 (% predicted) was 22% in the NAC group and 24% in the control group. There was no difference between the groups in the rate of change of FEV1, VC, SaO2 or breathlessness. Nor did the groups differ in the median length of stay in hospital (6 days for both groups).
Addition of NAC to treatment with corticosteroids and bronchodilators does not modify the outcome in acute exacerbations of COPD.