Treatment of Asthma; Defination, Causes, Symptoms

Treatment of Asthma is a common chronic disorder of the airways that is complex and characterized by variable and recurring symptoms, airflow obstruction, bronchial hyperresponsiveness, and an underlying inflammation [Rx]. The interaction of these features of asthma determines the clinical manifestations and severity of asthma [Rx] and the response to treatment.

Asthma is a common chronic disorder of the airways that involves a complex interaction of airflow obstruction, bronchial hyperresponsiveness and an underlying inflammation. This interaction can be highly variable among patients and within patients over time. This section presents a definition of asthma, a description of the processes on which that definition is based—the pathophysiology and pathogenesis of asthma, and the natural history of asthma.

Treatment of Asthma

Non-pharmacological treatment

  • Removal of allergens (especially pets with feathers or fur) (evidence level A)
  • Structured patient education: improved self-management leading to better symptomatic control, reduction of the number of asthma attacks and emergency situations, improved quality of life, and improvement in various other parameters of disease course including days taken off from school or work and days spent in hospital (evidence level A)
  • Physical training (reduction of asthma symptoms, improved exercise tolerance, improved quality of life, reduced morbidity) (evidence level C)
  • Respiratory therapy and physiotherapy (e.g., breathing techniques, pursed-lip breathing) (evidence level C)
  • Smoking cessation (with medical and non-medical aids, if necessary) (evidence level B)
  • Psychosocial treatment approaches (family therapy) (evidence level C)
  • For obese patients, weight loss (evidence level B)().

The goals of pharmacotherapy are the suppression of the inflammation of asthma and the reduction of bronchial hyperreactivity and airway obstruction. The medications used for these purposes belong to two groups:

  • Relievers (medications taken for symptomatic relief as necessary) include mainly the inhaled, rapidly-acting beta2 sympathomimetic agents, e.g., the short-acting drugs salbutamol, fenoterol, and terbutaline and the long-acting drug formoterol. Inhaled anticholinergic drugs and rapidly-acting theophylline (solution or drops) play a secondary role as relievers.
  • Controllers (medications used for preventive, maintenance therapy) include the inhaled corticosteroids (ICS), inhaled long-acting beta2 agonists (LABA) such as formoterol or salmeterol, montelukast, and delayed-release theophylline preparations.

Formoterol can be used as a reliever because of its rapid onset of action or as a controller in combination with corticosteroids.


Medications used to treat asthma are divided into two general classes: quick-relief medications used to treat acute symptoms; and long-term control medications used to prevent further exacerbation. Antibiotics are generally not needed for sudden worsening of symptoms.


Salbutamol metered dose inhaler commonly used to treat asthma attacks.
  • Short-acting beta2-adrenoceptor agonists (SABA), such as salbutamol (albuterol USAN) are the first line of treatment for asthma symptoms. They are recommended before exercise in those with exercise induced symptoms.
  • Anticholinergic medications, such as ipratropium bromide, provide additional benefit when used in combination with SABA in those with moderate or severe symptoms. Anticholinergic bronchodilators can also be used if a person cannot tolerate a SABA. If a child requires admission to hospital additional ipratropium does not appear to help over a SABA.
  • Older, less selective adrenergic agonists, such as inhaled epinephrine, have similar efficacy to SABAs.They are however not recommended due to concerns regarding excessive cardiac stimulation.

Long–term control

Fluticasone propionate metered dose inhaler commonly used for long-term control.
  • Corticosteroids – are generally considered the most effective treatment available for long-term control. Inhaled forms such as beclomethasone are usually used except in the case of severe persistent disease, in which oral corticosteroids may be needed. It is usually recommended that inhaled formulations be used once or twice daily, depending on the severity of symptoms.
  • Long-acting beta-adrenoceptor agonists – (LABA) such as salmeterol and formoterol can improve asthma control, at least in adults, when given in combination with inhaled corticosteroids. In children this benefit is uncertain. When used without steroids they increase the risk of severe side-effects, and with corticosteroids, they may slightly increase the risk. Evidence suggests that for children who have persistent asthma, a treatment regime that includes LABA added to inhaled corticosteroids may improve lung function but does not reduce the amount of serious exacerbations. Children who require LABA as part of their asthma treatment may need to go to the hospital more frequently.
  • Leukotriene receptor antagonists – (anti-leukotriene agents such as montelukast and zafirlukast) may be used in addition to inhaled corticosteroids, typically also in conjunction with a LABA. Evidence is insufficient to support use in acute exacerbations. For adults or adolescents who have persistent asthma that is not controlled very well, the addition of anti-leukotriene agents along with daily inhaled corticosteriods improves lung function and reduces the risk of moderate and severe asthma exacerbations. Anti-leukotriene agents may be effective alone for adolescents and adults, however, there is no clear research suggesting which people with asthma would benefit from anti-leukotriene receptor alone. In those under five years of age, anti-leukotriene agents were the preferred add-on therapy after inhaled corticosteroids by the British Thoracic Society in 2009. A 2013 Cochrane systematic review concluded that anti-leukotriene agents appear to be of little benefit when added to inhaled steroids for treating children. A similar class of drugs, 5-LOX inhibitors, may be used as an alternative in the chronic treatment of mild to moderate asthma among older children and adults. As of 2013 there is one medication in this family known as zileuton.
  • aminophylline – Intravenous administration of the drug does not provide an improvement in bronchodilation when compared to standard inhaled beta-2 agonist treatment. Aminophylline treatment is associated with more adverse effects compared to inhaled beta-2 agonist treatment.
  • Mast cell stabilizers – (such as cromolyn sodium) are another non-preferred alternative to corticosteroids.
  • For children with asthma which is well-controlled on combination therapy of inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) and long-acting beta2-agonists (LABA), the benefits and harms of stopping LABA and stepping down to ICS-only therapy are uncertain.
  • In adults who have stable asthma while they are taking a combination of LABA and inhaled corticosteroids (ICS), stopping LABA may increase the risk of asthma exacerbations that require treatment with corticosteroids by mouth.
  • Stopping LABA probably makes little or no important difference to asthma control or asthma-related quality of life. Whether or not stopping LABA increases the risk of serious adverse events or exacerbations requiring an emergency department visit or hospitalisation is uncertain.

Delivery methods

Medications are typically provided as metered-dose inhalers (MDIs) in combination with an asthma spacer or as a dry powder inhaler. The spacer is a plastic cylinder that mixes the medication with air, making it easier to receive a full dose of the drug. A nebulizer may also be used. Nebulizers and spacers are equally effective in those with mild to moderate symptoms. However, insufficient evidence is available to determine whether a difference exists in those with severe disease. There is no strong evidence for the use of intravenous LABA for adults or children who have acute asthma.

The most commonly used asthma medications include the following

  • Short-acting bronchodilators (albuterol) – provide quick relief and can be used in conjunction for exercise-induced symptoms.
  • Inhaled steroids fluticasone – mometasone ciclesonide, flunisolide are first-line anti-inflammatory therapy.
  • Long-acting bronchodilators – (salmeterol formoterol vilanterol) can be added to ICS as additive therapy. LABAs should never be used alone for the treatment of asthma.
  • Leukotriene – modifiers can also serve as anti-inflammatory agents.
  • Anticholinergic agents – (ipratropium , tiotropium [Spiriva], umeclidinium [Incruse Ellipta]) can help decrease sputum production.
  • Anti-IgE – treatment can be used in allergic asthma.
  • Anti-IL5 treatment – (mepolizumab , reslizumab ) can be used in eosinophilic asthma.
  • Chromones stabilize mast cells – (allergic cells) but are rarely used in clinical practice.
  • Theophylline – also helps with bronchodilation (opening the airways) but is rarely used in clinical practice due to an unfavorable side-effect profile.
  • Systemic steroids – (prednisone, prednisolone , methylprednisolone, dexamethasone ) 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.

Treatments whose effectiveness has been inadequately demonstrated, or not at all

  • Acupuncture
  • “Alexander technique” training of breathing
  • Air moisture control
  • Breathing exercises
  • Buteyko breathing technique
  • Chiropractic manipulation
  • Dietary measures: fish oil, fatty acids, mineral supplementation or restriction, vitamin C
  • Homeopathy
  • Hypnosis
  • Ionizers (room-air purifiers)
  • Plant extracts (phytotherapeutic agents)
  • Relaxation therapy, including progressive relaxation as described by Jacobson, hypnotherapy, autogenic training, biofeedback training, transcendental meditation
  • Speleotherapy (living in underground caves and mines)
  • Traditional Chinese medicine (), ().


When asthma is unresponsive to usual medications, other options are available for both emergency management and prevention of flareups. For emergency management other options include:

  • Oxygen to alleviate hypoxia if saturations fall below 92%.
  • Corticosteroid by mouth are recommended with five days of prednisone being the same 2 days of dexamethasone. One review recommended a seven-day course of steroids.
  • Magnesium sulfate intravenous treatment increases bronchodilation when used in addition to other treatment in moderate severe acute asthma attacks. In adults it results in a reduction of hospital admissions.
  • Heliox, a mixture of helium and oxygen, may also be considered in severe unresponsive cases.
  • Intravenous salbutamol is not supported by available evidence and is thus used only in extreme cases.
  • Methylxanthines (such as theophylline) were once widely used, but do not add significantly to the effects of inhaled beta-agonists. Their use in acute exacerbations is controversial.
  • The dissociative anesthetic ketamine is theoretically useful if intubation and mechanical ventilation is needed in people who are approaching respiratory arrest; however, there is no evidence from clinical trials to support this.
  • For those with severe persistent asthma not controlled by inhaled corticosteroids and LABAs, bronchial thermoplasty may be an option. It involves the delivery of controlled thermal energy to the airway wall during a series of bronchoscopies. While it may increase exacerbation frequency in the first few months it appears to decrease the subsequent rate. Effects beyond one year are unknown.
  • Evidence suggests that sublingual immunotherapy in those with both allergic rhinitis and asthma improve outcomes.
  • Omalizumab may also be useful in those with poorly controlled allergic asthma.
  • It is unclear if non-invasive positive pressure ventilation in children is of use as it has not been sufficiently studied.

Alternative medicine

Acupuncture is not recommended for the treatment as there is insufficient evidence to support its use. Air ionisers show no evidence that they improve asthma symptoms or benefit lung function; this applied equally to positive and negative ion generators.

Manual therapies, including osteopathic, chiropractic, physiotherapeutic and respiratory therapeutic maneuvers, have insufficient evidence to support their use in treating asthma. The Buteyko breathing technique for controlling hyperventilation may result in a reduction in medication use; however, the technique does not have any effect on lung function. Thus an expert panel felt that evidence was insufficient to support its use.

The main adverse effects of anti-asthmatic medication

  • Inhaled short-acting beta2 sympathomimetic agents – Fine tremor of voluntary muscle; agitation; tachycardia; palpitations
  • Inhaled long-acting beta2 sympathomimetic agents (LABA) – Same adverse effects as short-acting agents; also: tolerance of bronchoprotective effect in the presence of bronchoconstricting stimuli (while the bronchodilating effect of the drug is maintained); to be used over the long term only in combination with glucocorticoids (usually ICS)
  • Inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) – oropharyngeal candidiasis (thrush); hoarsenessSystemic: depending on the dose and the duration of administration, osteoporosis; cataracts; glaucoma; delayed growth in childhood; suppression of adrenocortical function
  • Systemic corticosteroids – Cushing syndrome; osteoporosis; myopathy; glaucoma; cataracts; endocrine psychosyndrome; worsening of diabetes mellitus; sodium retention; hypertension; adrenocortical atrophy; elevated susceptibility to infection
  • Montelukast – Abdominal symptoms; a headache; unclear association with Churg-Strauss syndrome, thus the dose of simultaneously administered systemic glucocorticoids should be lowered cautiously
  • Theophyllin – Depending on the serum concentration: gastrointestinal disturbances; gastroesophageal reflux disorder; tachycardia; diuresis; agitation; insomnia When the serum concentration exceeds 25 mg/L: epileptic seizures; gastrointestinal bleeding; ventricular arrhythmia; hypotension
  • Omalizumab – Local reactions at the subcutaneous injection site; a headache

Please answer the following questions to participate in our certified Continuing Medical Education program. Only one answer is possible per question. Please select the answer that is most appropriate.


[bg_collapse view=”button-orange” color=”#4a4949″ expand_text=”Show More” collapse_text=”Show Less” ]


Treatment of Asthma

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *