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To present a meta-analytic update on the effects of noninvasive ventilation (NIV) in the management of acute respiratory failure.Meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials in acute respiratory failure comparing NIV with standard medical therapy.Randomized controlled trials of NIV in acute respiratory failure were identified by search of i) MEDLINE (1966–2000), ii) published abstracts from scientific meetings, and iii) bibliographies of relevant articles.Of the 15 randomized controlled trials that were identified (13 published and 2 in abstract form), 8 studies were on exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and 7 on diverse disease processes in both COPD and non-COPD groups (“mixed-group”). Because of underlying heterogeneity of treatment effects, only the DerSimonian-Laird random effects estimator was used and reported. The effects of NIV vs. standard therapy on mortality and subsequent invasive mechanical ventilation (MV) was assessed as risk difference, and hospital length of stay as mean weighted difference (days). NIV was associated with reduction in mortality (8%, p = .03), reduced need for MV (19%, p = .001) and shortened hospital length of stay (2.74 days, p = .004). In the COPD cohort, significant reductions in mortality (13%, p = .001), need for MV (18%, p = .02), and hospital length of stay (5.66 days, p = .01) were observed in the group treated with NIV. In contrast, in the mixed-group, there was no demonstrable reduction in mortality (0%, p = .98). However, there was significant reduction in the need for MV (22%, p = .001). Publication bias was not evident on analysis. Treatment effect i) as mortality or need for mechanical ventilation was not modified by enrollment pH, Paco2, nor age and ii) was not related (as log odds ratio) to underlying risk (control arm log odds). Cumulative meta-analysis did not demonstrate any substantial variation in the point estimates with the addition of the recently published studies. However a contraction in the confidence intervals was observed in the COPD subgroup. Complication rates were not significantly different in the standard medical therapy group and the NIV treated patients.Substantial reductions in mortality and the need for subsequent MV were associated with NIV in acute respiratory failure, especially in the COPD subgroup. Hospital length of stay was variably affected. Heterogeneity of treatment effects was observed.