The treatment goals for asthma are to:
- adequately control symptoms,
- minimize the risk of future exacerbations,
- maintain normal lung function,
- maintain normal activity levels, and
- take the least amount of medication possible with the least amount of potential side effects.
Inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) are the most effective anti-inflammatory agents available for the chronic treatment of asthma and are first-line therapy per most asthma guidelines. It is well recognized that ICS are effective in decreasing the risk of asthma exacerbations. Furthermore, the combination of a long-acting bronchodilator (LABA) and an ICS has a significant additional beneficial effect on improving asthma control. Short-acting rescue inhalers are the standard of care for break through symptoms.
The most commonly used asthma medications include the following:
- Short-acting bronchodilators (albuterol [Proventil, Ventolin, ProAir, ProAir RespiClick, Maxair, Xopenex]) provide quick relief for symptoms occurring despite controller medications. These may also be used alone in patients with occasional symptoms or patients experiencing symptoms with exercise only. Inhaled steroids (budesonide [Pulmicort Turbuhaler, Pulmicort Respules], fluticasone [Flovent, Arnuity Ellipta, Armon Air RespiClick], beclomethasone [Qvar], mometasone [Asmanex], ciclesonide [Alvesco], flunisolide [Aerobid, Aerospan]) are first-line anti-inflammatory therapies.
- Long-acting bronchodilators (salmeterol [Serevent], formoterol [Foradil], vilanterol) can be added to ICS as additive therapy. LABAs should never be used alone for the treatment of asthma.
- ICS/LABA combination agents combine corticosteroids and long-acting bronchodilators. Fluticasone/salmeterol (Advair, AirDuo, Wixela), budesonide/formoterol (Symbicort), fluticasone/vilanterol (Breo), mometasone/formoterol (Dulera).
- Leukotriene modifiers (montelukast [Singulair], zafirlukast [Accolate], zileuton [Zyflo]) can also serve as anti-inflammatory agents.
- Anticholinergic agents or antimuscarinic agents (ipratropium [Atrovent, Atrovent HFA], tiotropium [Spiriva], umeclidinium [Incruse Ellipta]) can help decrease sputum production.
- There is one triple combination agent of an inhaled corticosteroid, long-acting bronchodilator, and anti-muscarinic agent: fluticasone/vilanterol/umeclidium (Trelegy) that is most often used for asthma/COPD overlap.
- Anti-IgE treatment (omalizumab [Xolair]) can be used in allergic asthma.
- Anti-IL5 treatment (mepolizumab [Nucala], reslizumab [Cinqair], and benralizumab [Fasenra]) can be used in eosinophilic asthma.
- Anti IL-4 receptor antagonist (dupilumab, Dupixent) is approved for moderate to severe eosinophilic asthma. It is also approved for atopic dermatitis and nasal polyposis.
- Chromones (cromolyn [Intal, Opticrom, Gastrocrom], nedocromil [Alocril]) stabilize mast cells (allergic cells) but are rarely used in clinical practice.
- Theophylline (Respbid, Slo-Bid, Theo-24) also helps with bronchodilation (opening the airways) but is rarely used in clinical practice due to an unfavorable side-effect profile.
- Systemic steroids (prednisone [Deltasone, Liquid Pred], prednisolone [Flo-Pred, Pediapred, Orapred, Orapred ODT], methylprednisolone [Medrol, Depo-Medrol, Solu-Medrol], dexamethasone [DexPak]) are potent anti-inflammatory agents that are routinely used to treat asthma exacerbations but pose numerous unwanted side effects if used repeatedly or chronically.
- Numerous additional monoclonal antibodies are also currently being studied and will likely be available within the next couple of years.
- Immunotherapy or allergy shots have been shown to decrease medication reliance in allergic asthma.
- There are no home remedies that have proven benefit for asthma.
There is often concern about potential long-term side effects of inhaled corticosteroids. Numerous studies have repeatedly shown that even long-term use of inhaled corticosteroids has very few if any sustained, clinically significant side effects, including changes in bone health, growth, or weight. However, the goal always remains to treat all individuals with the least amount of medication that is effective. Patients with asthma should be routinely reassessed for any appropriate changes to their medical regimen.
Asthma medications can be administered via inhalers either with or without a spacer or nebulized solution. It is important to note that if an individual has proper technique with an inhaler, the amount of medication deposited in the lungs is no different than that when using a nebulized solution. When prescribing asthma medications, it is essential to provide the appropriate teaching on proper delivery technique.
Smoking cessation and/or minimizing exposure to secondhand smoke are critical when treating asthma. Treating concurrent conditions such as allergic rhinitis and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may also improve asthma control. Vaccinations such as the annual influenza vaccination and pneumonia vaccination are also indicated.
Although the vast majority of individuals with asthma are treated as outpatients, treatment of severe exacerbations can require management in the emergency department or hospital. These individuals typically require use of supplemental oxygen, early administration of systemic steroids, and frequent or even continuous administration of bronchodilators via a nebulized solution. Individuals at high risk for poor asthma outcomes are referred to a specialist (pulmonologist or allergist). The following factors should prompt consideration or referral:
- History of ICU admission or multiple hospitalizations for asthma
- History of multiple visits to the emergency department for asthma
- History of frequent or daily use of systemic steroids for asthma
- Ongoing symptoms despite the use of appropriate medications
- Significant allergies contributing to poorly controlled asthma
What is the prognosis for asthma?
The prognosis for asthma is generally favorable. Children experience complete remission more often than adults. Although adults with asthma experience a greater rate of loss in their lung function as compared to age-controlled counterparts, this decline is usually not as severe as seen in other conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema. Asthma in the absence of other comorbidities does not appear to shorten life expectancy. Risk factors for poor prognosis from asthma include
- a history of hospitalizations, especially ICU admissions or intubation,
- frequent reliance on systemic steroids,
- significant medical comorbidities.
The airway narrowing in asthma may become fixed over time and can resemble COPD or emphysema. The other main complication of asthma is due to side effects from oral steroid use, which can include bone loss (osteoporosis), weight gain, and glucose intolerance.SLIDESHOWWhat Is Asthma? Symptoms, Causes, and TreatmentsSee Slideshow
Is it possible to prevent asthma?
With the increasing prevalence of asthma, numerous studies have looked for risk factors and ways to potentially prevent asthma. It has been shown that individuals living on farms are protected against wheezing, asthma, and even environmental allergies. The role of air pollution has been questioned in both the increased incidence of asthma and in regards to asthma exacerbations.
Climate change is also being studied as a factor in the increased incidence of asthma. Maternal smoking during pregnancy is a risk factor for asthma and poor outcomes. Tobacco smoke is also a significant risk factor for the development and progression of asthma. Treatment of environmental allergies with allergen immunotherapy, or allergy shots, has been shown to decrease a child’s risk of developing asthma. The development of asthma is ultimately a complex process influenced by many environmental and genetic factors, and currently there is no proven way to decrease an individual’s risk of developing asthma.