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Acute Severe Asthma

New Approaches to Assessment and Treatment


The precise definition of a severe asthmatic exacerbation is an issue that presents difficulties. The term ‘status asthmaticus’ relates severity to outcome and has been used to define a severe asthmatic exacerbation that does not respond to and/or perilously delays the repetitive or continuous administration of short-acting inhaled β2-adrenergic receptor agonists (SABA) in the emergency setting. However, a number of limitations exist concerning the quantification of unresponsiveness. Therefore, the term ‘acute severe asthma’ is widely used, relating severity mostly to a combination of the presenting signs and symptoms and the severity of the cardiorespiratory abnormalities observed, although it is well known that presentation does not foretell outcome.

In an acute severe asthma episode, close observation plus aggressive administration of bronchodilators (SABAs plus ipratropium bromide via a nebulizer driven by oxygen) and oral or intravenous corticosteroids are necessary to arrest the progression to severe hypercapnic respiratory failure leading to a decrease in consciousness that requires intensive care unit (ICU) admission and, eventually, ventilatory support. Adjunctive therapies (intravenous magnesium sulfate and/or others) should be considered in order to avoid intubation. Management after admission to the hospital ward because of an incomplete response is similar.

The decision to intubate is essentially based on clinical judgement. Although cardiac or respiratory arrest represents an absolute indication for intubation, the usual picture is that of a conscious patient struggling to breathe. Factors associated with the increased likelihood of intubation include exhaustion and fatigue despite maximal therapy, deteriorating mental status, refractory hypoxaemia, increasing hypercapnia, haemodynamic instability and impending coma or apnoea. To intubate, sedation is indicated in order to improve comfort, safety and patient-ventilator synchrony, while at the same time decrease oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production. Benzodiazepines can be safely used for sedation of the asthmatic patient, but time to awakening after discontinuation is prolonged and difficult to predict. The most common alternative is propofol, which is attractive in patients with sudden-onset (near-fatal) asthma who may be eligible for extubation within a few hours, because it can be titrated rapidly to a deep sedation level and has rapid reversal after discontinuation; in addition, it possesses bronchodilatory properties. The addition of an opioid (fentanyl or remifentanil) administered by continuous infusion to benzodiazepines or propofol is often desirable in order to provide amnesia, sedation, analgesia and respiratory drive suppression.

Acute severe asthma is characterized by severe pulmonary hyperinflation due to marked limitation of the expiratory flow. Therefore, the main objective of the initial ventilator management is 2-fold: to ensure adequate gas exchange and to prevent further hyperinflation and ventilator-associated lung injury. This may require hypoventilation of the patient and higher arterial carbon dioxide (PaCO2) levels and a more acidic pH. This does not apply to asthmatic patients intubated for cardiac or respiratory arrest. In this setting the post-anoxic brain oedema might demand more careful management of PaCO2 levels to prevent further elevation of intracranial pressure and subsequent complications. Monitoring lung mechanics is of paramount importance for the safe ventilation of patients with status asthmaticus.

The first line of specific pharmacological therapy in ventilated asthmatic patients remains bronchodilation with a SABA, typically salbutamol (albuterol). Administration techniques include nebulizers or metered-dose inhalers with spacers. Systemic corticosteroids are critical components of therapy and should be administered to all ventilated patients, although the dose of systemic corticosteroids in mechanically ventilated asthmatic patients remains controversial. Anticholinergics, inhaled corticosteroids, leukotriene receptor antagonists and methylxanthines offer little benefit, and clinical data favouring their use are lacking.

In conclusion, expertise, perseverance, judicious decisions and practice of evidence-based medicine are of paramount importance for successful outcomes for patients with acute severe asthma.

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The authors would like to thank Spyros Vlachos for assisting with the preparation of the figures. No sources of funding were used in the preparation of this article. The authors have no conflicts of interest that are directly relevant to the content of this article.

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Correspondence to Dr Spyros A. Papiris.

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Papiris, S.A., Manali, E.D., Kolilekas, L. et al. Acute Severe Asthma. Drugs 69, 2363–2391 (2009). https://doi.org/10.2165/11319930-000000000-00000

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  • Asthma
  • Salbutamol
  • Airway Smooth Muscle
  • Peak Expiratory Flow
  • Acute Asthma