Many elderly people with bronchitis or emphysema, known collectively as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), are likely to end up in hospital - but it's because of the drugs they're taking, not the disease.
Researchers have discovered that 70 per cent of COPD patients who take an inhaled corticosteroid - the common treatment to control the problem - end up in hospital. But it's the drug that has caused the need for hospital care, not the bronchitis.
A research team from McGill University in Canada discovered just how dangerous corticosteroids are when they looked at the histories of 175,906 COPD patients living in Quebec between 1988 and 2003.
During that time, 23,942 of them ended up in hospital - and there was a direct link between the doses of corticosteroids and the need for hospital care. Conversely, the risk receded when the dose was lowered.
Overall, 53 per cent of the patients died within 30 days of being admitted to hospital, and while pneumonia is blamed, the real culprit may well be the drug.
Inhaled corticosteroid use for COPD increased from 13.2 per cent to 41.4 per cent in the USA between 1987 and 1995.
Pneumonia-related complications are the third major reason for a hospital stay, and now it's reckoned it's more down to corticosteroids than the disease itself.
(Source: American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 2007; 176: 162-6).