It’s common for people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to produce extra mucus in their airways and have a reduced ability to clear it. This buildup, also called mucus plugs, can block airways and is associated with an increased risk for premature death among people with COPD, according to an NHLBI-supported review that published in JAMA.
Researchers already knew that extra mucus accumulating in smaller airways among people with COPD was associated with an increased risk for dying, but they weren’t sure if the same was true for mucus accumulating in medium to larger airways. After reviewing data from 4,363 adults with COPD, they found that 59% of adults with COPD had no detectable mucus plugs, 22% had mucus plugs in at least one airway, and 19% had mucus plugs in at least three airways. Adults in this review, who were between the ages of 45-80, also had a history of smoking.
After following participants for almost 10 years, researchers found that 41% of participants died throughout the review. This included 34% of adults with no mucus plugs, 47% of adults with a mucus plug in at least one airway, and 54% of adults with mucus plugs in at least three airways. After controlling for underlying conditions and similarities among participants, researchers found that adults with extra mucus accumulation in their airways had a greater chance for dying prematurely. They note these findings can inform research to identify targeted treatments, such as those that break up and clear mucus, for people living with COPD.