Background: There is debate about the mechanisms of persistent airflow limitation in patients with asthma. Chronic inflammation is assumed to be important, although there is limited and contradictory information about the relationship between airway inflammation and postbronchodilator FEV1.
Methods: We have assessed the cross-sectional relationship between prebronchodilator and postbronchodilator FEV1 and measures of airway inflammation after allowing for the effects of potential confounding factors. Multivariate analysis was performed on data collected from 1,197 consecutive patients with asthma seen at the respiratory outpatient clinic at Glenfield Hospital between 1997 and 2004. Relationships between induced sputum total neutrophil and differential eosinophil cell counts, and prebronchodilator and postbronchodilator lung function were examined.
Results: Sputum total neutrophil but not differential eosinophil count was associated with lower postbronchodilator FEV1. Both differential eosinophil and total neutrophil count were associated with lower prebronchodilator FEV1. These effects were independent after adjustment for age, smoking, ethnicity, asthma duration, and inhaled corticosteroid use. A 10-fold increase in neutrophil count was associated with a 92 mL reduction (95% confidence interval, 29 to 158; p = 0.007) in postbronchodilator FEV1.
Conclusions: In this large heterogeneous population of adults with asthma, we have shown that prebronchodilator FEV1 is associated with neutrophilic and eosinophilic airway inflammation, whereas sputum total neutrophil counts alone are associated with postbronchodilator FEV1. This supports the hypothesis that neutrophilic airway inflammation has a role in the progression of persistent airflow limitation in asthma and raises the possibility that this progression and the development of COPD share a common mechanism.