BACKGROUND--Cigarette smoking produces an inflammatory response in the airways of everyone but only 15-20% of smokers develop airways obstruction. The present study concerns the relative importance of peripheral airways inflammation and the emphysematous destruction of the parenchymal support of the airways in the pathogenesis of this obstruction. METHODS--A total of 407 patients with a diagnosis of lung tumour performed pulmonary function tests a day or two before a lung or lobar resection. The specimens were fixed in inflation and analysed at the gross and microscopic level to determine the extent and severity of the emphysematous process, the number of alveoli supporting the outer walls of the airways, and the average distance between alveolar walls. The severity of the inflammatory process in the respiratory and nonrespiratory bronchioles was also assessed using a previously established grading system. RESULTS--The lung function test showed that a decline in FEV1 was associated with an increase in residual volume and a decrease in the diffusing capacity for carbon monoxide and a reduction in the lung maximum elastic recoil pressure. The prevalence of grossly visible emphysema increased as FEV1 declined, but the extent and severity of these lesions and the number of alveoli supporting the outer walls of the peripheral airways was similar at all levels of FEV1. The system used to grade inflammatory response in the peripheral airways failed to identify a specific defect responsible for the physiological abnormalities. CONCLUSION--The reduction in FEV1 associated with chronic cigarette smoking can be partially explained by loss of lung elastic recoil pressure which reduces the force driving air out of the lung. This loss of elastic recoil pressure is attributed to microscopic enlargement of the air spaces rather than to grossly visible emphysema. The exact nature of the lesions responsible for the peripheral airways obstruction remains to be identified.
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