A common antibiotic has been found to reduce acute symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to a multicenter clinical trial study by the National Institutes of Health and conducted at the University of California San Francisco. The study appears in the New England Journal of Medicine

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. It includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and in some cases asthma. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention

COPD is a major cause of disability, and it's the third leading cause of death in the United States. More than 12 million people are currently diagnosed with COPD. Many more people may have the disease and not even know it. Symptoms progressively worsen over time and limit an individual’s ability to do routine activities, such as walking or taking care of one self.

“This is a terrible disease that destroys the patient’s lung function,’’ said co-author Stephen C. Lazarus, a UCSF professor of medicine and chairman of the steering committee of the National Institutes of Health-funded network that conducted the study. “People with it become short of breath doing routine daily activities. For those with severe disease, it’s like suffocating.

The Clinical study has found that commonly prescribed antibiotics can reduce the frequency of exacerbations in COPD.

COPD exacerbations are caused by many complex interactions between environmental pollution factors, such as smoking infections from bacteria and viruses. The factors increase the inflammatory response overwhelming the protective anti-inflammatory defense leading to tissue damage.

Frequent COPD exacerbations are associated to a faster decline in lung function, a decrease in health resulting in frequent doctor visits and hospitalizations. Prevention or treatment is a global priority.

In the US, most cases of the disease are caused by smoking, in other nations illness is caused by biomass fuels used for heating and cooking indoors.

The NIH study examined whether antibiotic could be effective in reducing COPD exacerbation; the trial had 1,142 participants who had confirm diagnosis of COPD from 17 medical sites. The trial subjects were given either a placebo or antibiotic azithromycin daily for one year.

The trial study results found that those receiving azithromycin were 27 percent less likely to have COPD exacerbations which occurred after 266 days on median, compared to 174 days receiving the placebo. Subjects who took azithromycin also responded more favorably on questionnaires that asked them to assess their breathing ability and their general well-being.

“If we can improve the quality of life for patients with this disease and slow their loss of lung function, then we have done something really important for them,’’ said Lazarus.