, Volume 62, Issue 16, pp 2315–2332 | Cite as

Second-Line Controller Therapy for Persistent Asthma Uncontrolled on Inhaled Corticosteroids

The Step 3 Dilemma
Current Opinion


The asthma syndrome is characterised by airway inflammation with associated bronchial hyperresponsiveness (BHR) and reversible airflow obstruction. Therapy has benefited from an enhanced understanding of the pathophysiology of asthma and the resulting guidelines that emphasise the pivotal role of anti-inflammatory inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) as first-line therapy. Most patients with mild-to-moderate asthma can be adequately controlled on low-to-medium dosages of ICS alone. For patients with moderate-to-severe asthma who are not adequately controlled by ICS, it is unclear which medication should be added on.

The two principal drugs under consideration are long-acting β2-agonists (LABAs) and leukotriene antagonists (LTAs). Although both LABAs and LTAs are both effective at improving lung function, reducing symptoms and decreasing exacerbations, important differences exist that may determine the selection of one over the other in particular circumstances. LABAs and LTAs are equally effective at reducing exacerbations and improving symptoms and quality of life when used as add-on therapy. LABAs tend to be more effective bronchodilators than LTAs. Although LABAs stabilise the airway smooth muscle, they do not affect the underlying inflammatory process. Their long-term use also leads to subsensitivity of response to both LABAs and short-acting β2-agonists (SABAs). The subsensitivity of response to SABAs is more pronounced in the presence of acute bronchoconstriction, which could be relevant during an acute attack. When combined with an ICS, LTAs provide additive non-steroidal anti-inflammatory properties and alleviate associated BHR, but do not induce subsensitivity of response. Not only is the efficacy of LTAs maintained over time, but also they do not affect the response to SABAs as reliever therapy. LTAs also have beneficial effects in patients who have concomitant allergic rhinitis, thus treating the unified airway.

The choice between LABA and LTA as add-on therapy will therefore be determined by the needs of the individual patient in terms of providing anti-inflammatory versus bronchodilatory control. For patients with poor lung function where bronchodilatation is required, then an LABA would seem to be a logical choice. For the patient whose lung function is less impaired, with evidence of ongoing BHR where bronchoprotection is needed (e.g. exercise, allergen, cold air), or when there is concomitant allergic rhinitis, then an LTA would be more suitable.



Professor Lipworth has received funding for clinical trials, second-hand equipment, attending postgraduate meetings and giving postgraduate educational lectures from: AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Sharp and Dohme, and 3M Health Care. Dr Jackson is a GlaxoSmithKline shareholder.


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© Adis International Limited 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, Asthma and Allergy Research Group, Ninewells University Hospital and Medical SchoolUniversity of DundeeDundeeUK
  2. 2.Tayside Centre of General PracticeUniversity of DundeeDundeeUK

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