BACKGROUND: Exacerbations of airway disease are eosinophilic, neutrophilic, both or neither. The primary objective of the present study was to identify whether the treatment of a neutrophilic bronchitis can unmask an associated eosinophilia.
METHODS: A retrospective survey of 2160 consecutive sputum cell counts from 1343 patients with airway disease was conducted to identify patients with an isolated neutrophilic bronchitis, which was defined as a sputum total cell count of greater than or equal to 12×106cells/g of sputum and a proportion of neutrophils of 80% or greater. The characteristics of the patients who subsequently demonstrated sputum eosinophilia (3% or greater) within eight weeks of resolving the neutrophilia were compared with the patients who subsequently did not have sputum eosinophilia.
RESULTS: Two hundred thirty-seven patients had 273 neutrophilic exacerbations. The sputum was re-examined within eight weeks in 65 patients (27.4%), of whom 38 (58.5%) had resolution of the neutrophilic bronchitis after treatment with an antibiotic. Of these 38 patients, 13 (34%) showed eosinophilia.
CONCLUSIONS: A neutrophilic exacerbation of airway disease was observed to mask sputum eosinophilia in one-third of patients who had sputum cell counts available before and after antibiotic therapy. Hence, the absence of sputum eosinophilia during an infective exacerbation should not be used as an indication to reduce the dose of corticosteroids. To optimize therapy, repeat sputum cell count measurements are recommended after antibiotic treatment before changing corticosteroid treatment.