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Should patients with mild asthma use inhaled steroids?

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Yes. A number of large randomized controlled trials have shown inhaled corticosteroids to be beneficial in low doses for patients who have mild persistent asthma, and therefore these drugs are strongly recommended in this situation.1

Asthma care providers should, however, consider this “yes” in the context of asthma severity, the goals of therapy, and the benefits and risks associated with inhaled corticosteroids.


The third Expert Panel Report (EPR-3) categorizes asthma as intermittent (formerly called “mild intermittent”), mild persistent, moderate persistent, or severe persistent (Table 1).1

Although the studies of asthma prevalence had methodologic limitations and therefore the true prevalence of mild persistent asthma cannot be determined, it is common. Fuhlbrigge et al2 reported that most asthma patients have some form of persistent asthma. In contrast, Dusser et al3 reviewed available studies and concluded that most patients with asthma have either intermittent or mild persistent asthma.


The goals of asthma management are to:

Reduce impairment by controlling symptoms so that normal activity levels can be maintained, by minimizing the need for short-acting bronchodilator use, and by maintaining normal pulmonary function; and to

Reduce risk by preventing progressive loss of lung function and recurrent exacerbations, and by optimizing pharmacotherapy while minimizing potential adverse effects.1


The benefits of inhaled corticosteroids in mild persistent asthma were established by a number of large prospective clinical trials (Table 2).4–8

The OPTIMA trial4 (Low Dose Inhaled Budesonide and Formoterol in Mild Persistent Asthma) was a double-blind, randomized trial carried out in 198 centers in 17 countries. Compared with those randomized to receive placebo, patients who were randomized to receive an inhaled corticosteroid, ie, budesonide (Pulmicort) 100 μg twice daily, had 60% fewer severe exacerbations (relative risk [RR] 0.4, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.27–0.59) and 48% fewer days when their asthma was poorly controlled (RR 0.52, 95% CI 0.4–0.67). Adding a long-acting beta-agonist did not change this outcome.

The START study5 (Inhaled Steroid Treatment as Regular Therapy in Early Asthma) showed that, compared with placebo, starting inhaled budesonide within the first 2 years of asthma symptoms in patients with mild persistent asthma was associated with better asthma control and less need for additional asthma medication.

The IMPACT study6 (Improving Asthma Control Trial) showed that inhaled steroids need to be taken daily, on a regular schedule, rather than intermittently as needed. Patients received either inhaled budesonide as needed, budesonide 200 μg twice daily every day, or zafirlukast (Accolate) 20 mg twice daily. Daily budesonide therapy resulted in better asthma control, less bronchial hyperresponsiveness, and less airway inflammation compared with intermittent use, zafirlukast therapy, or placebo. Daily zafirlukast and intermittent steroid treatment produced similar results for all outcomes measured.

Despite this strong evidence supporting regular use of inhaled corticosteroids in patients with mild persistent asthma, many patients choose to take them intermittently.

Suissa et al7 found, in a large observational cohort study, that fewer patients died of asthma if they were receiving low-dose inhaled corticosteroids than if they were not. The rate of death due to asthma was lower in patients who had used more inhaled corticosteroids over the previous year, and the death rate was higher in those who had discontinued inhaled corticosteroids in the previous 3 months than in those who continued using them.


Compared with people without asthma, asthma patients have substantially lower values of forced expiratory volume in the first second of expiration (FEV1). They also have a faster rate of functional decline: the average decrease in FEV1 in asthma patients is 38 mL per year, compared with 22 mL per year in nonasthmatic people.9

Although inhaled corticosteroids have been shown to increase lung function in asthma patients in the short term, there is little convincing evidence to suggest that they affect the rate of decline in the long term.10 In fact, airway inflammation and bronchial hyperresponsiveness return to baseline within 2 weeks after inhaled corticosteroids are discontinued.10

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