Introduction Acute exacerbations of COPD have a major impact on patients’ health related quality of life (HRQoL), and the utilisation of health care resources. Current guidelines recommend oral corticosteroids and/or antibiotics for the treatment of acute exacerbations of COPD based on patients’ symptoms. With increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics and the rising costs of COPD treatment, further research into diagnostic tools to aid the management of COPD in its stable and exacerbating states is required. Sputum colour (SC) is an accessible marker of underlying bronchial inflammation. We investigated the contribution of objective measures of SC as a component of the clinical assessment of exacerbations and relationships with symptom severity.
Methods Data from 36 patients with moderate to very severe COPD was assessed in this prospective observational cohort study (AERIS). There were 122 exacerbations in total over a year. Sputum and blood sampling were performed at enrolment, routine follow up and exacerbation visits. A five-point sputum colour chart was developed to objectively report the SC. Sputum samples from all visits were graded against this chart by the trained laboratory staff. Data from mild, moderate and severe exacerbations were included in the analysis.
Results We found a correlation between SC at exacerbations and disease severity (FEV1%) at exacerbations. SC was also related to sputum neutrophilia at exacerbations. SC was significantly associated with systemic markers such as blood neutrophilia, CRP and fibrinogen. Interestingly, we observed no statistically significant correlation between SC and Procalcitonin levels. We also found no statistically significant relationship between SC and symptom scores (CAT and EXACT-PRO) at exacerbations. However, we found a significant association between CAT and EXACT-PRO scores (rho 0.46; p < 0.01).
Conclusion We observed that visual colour score of sputum at exacerbations is related to underlying airway and systemic inflammation but not to symptom scores. The use of a SC combined with other clinical and laboratory biomarkers, as part of a multicomponent diagnostic tool, may further improve its clinical utility to better guide effective exacerbation treatment. Further analysis of the full AERIS cohort will explore this.