Research Article: Asthma

Date Published: November 10, 2011

Publisher: BioMed Central

Author(s): Harold Kim, Jorge Mazza.


Asthma is the most common respiratory disorder in Canada. Despite significant improvement in the diagnosis and management of this disorder, the majority of Canadians with asthma remain poorly controlled. In most patients, however, control can be achieved through the use of avoidance measures and appropriate pharmacological interventions. Inhaled corticosteroids (ICSs) represent the standard of care for the majority of patients. Combination ICS/long-acting beta2-agonists (LABA) inhalers are preferred for most adults who fail to achieve control with ICS therapy. Allergen-specific immunotherapy represents a potentially disease-modifying therapy for many patients with asthma, but should only be prescribed by physicians with appropriate training in allergy. Regular monitoring of asthma control, adherence to therapy and inhaler technique are also essential components of asthma management. This article provides a review of current literature and guidelines for the appropriate diagnosis and management of asthma.

Partial Text

Asthma remains the most common chronic respiratory disease in Canada, affecting approximately 10% of the population [1]. Although asthma is often believed to be a disorder localized to the lungs, current evidence indicates that it may represent a component of systemic airway disease involving the entire respiratory tract, and this is supported by the fact that asthma frequently coexists with other atopic disorders, particularly allergic rhinitis [2].

Asthma is defined as a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways. The chronic inflammation is associated with airway hyperresponsiveness (an exaggerated airway-narrowing response to triggers, such as allergens and exercise), that leads to recurrent symptoms such as wheezing, dyspnea (shortness of breath), chest tightness and coughing. Symptom episodes are generally associated with widespread, but variable, airflow obstruction within the lungs that is usually reversible either spontaneously or with appropriate asthma treatment [4].

Asthma is associated with T helper cell type-2 (Th2) immune responses, which are typical of other atopic conditions. Various allergic (e.g., dust mites, cockroach residue, furred animals, moulds, pollens) and non-allergic (e.g., infections, tobacco smoke, cold air, exercise) triggers produce a cascade of immune-mediated events leading to chronic airway inflammation. Elevated levels of Th2 cells in the airways release specific cytokines, including interleukin (IL)-4, IL-5, IL-9 and IL-13, that promote eosinophilic inflammation and immunoglobulin E (IgE) production by mast cells. IgE production, in turn, triggers the release of inflammatory mediators, such as histamine and cysteinyl leukotrienes, that cause bronchospasm (contraction of the smooth muscle in the airways), edema (swelling) and increased mucous secretion (mucous hypersecretion), which lead to the characteristic symptoms of asthma [4,5].

The diagnosis of asthma involves a thorough medical history, physical examination, and objective assessments of lung function (spirometry preferred) to confirm the diagnosis (see Table 1). Bronchoprovocation challenge testing and assessing for markers of airway inflammation may also be helpful for diagnosing the disease, particularly when objective measurements of lung function are normal despite the presence of asthma symptoms [4,6,7].

The primary goal of asthma management is to achieve and maintain control of the disease in order to prevent exacerbations (abrupt and/or progressive worsening of asthma symptoms that often require immediate medical attention and/or the use of oral steroid therapy) and reduce the risk of morbidity and mortality. The level of asthma control should be assessed at each visit using the criteria in Table 2, and treatment should be tailored to achieve control. In most asthma patients, control can be achieved through the use of both avoidance measures and pharmacological interventions. The pharmacologic agents commonly used for the treatment of asthma can be classified as controllers (medications taken daily on a long-term basis that achieve control primarily through anti-inflammatory effects) and relievers (medications used on an as-needed basis for quick relief of bronchoconstriction and symptoms). Controller medications include ICSs, leukotriene receptor antagonists (LTRAs), long-acting beta2-agonists (LABAs) in combination with an ICS, and anti-IgE therapy. Reliever medications include rapid-acting inhaled beta2-agonists and inhaled anticholinergics [4,6,7]. Allergen-specific immunotherapy may also be considered in most patients with allergic asthma, but must be prescribed by physicians who are adequately trained in the treatment of allergies [11,12]. Systemic corticosteroid therapy may also be required for the management of acute asthma exacerbations. A simplified, stepwise algorithm for the treatment of asthma is provided in Figure 1.

Asthma is the most common respiratory disorder in Canada, and contributes to significant morbidity and mortality. A diagnosis of asthma should be suspected in patients with recurrent cough, wheeze, chest tightness and dyspnea, and should be confirmed using objective measures of lung function (spirometry preferred). Allergy testing is also recommended to identify possible triggers of asthma symptoms.

• A clinical diagnosis of asthma should be suspected in patients with intermittent symptoms of wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and breathlessness.

Dr. Harold Kim is the past president of the Canadian Network for Respiratory Care and co-chief editor of Allergy, Asthma and Clinical Immunology. He has received consulting fees and honoraria for continuing education from AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Graceway Pharmaceuticals, King Pharma, Merck Frosst, Novartis, and Nycomed.