Childhood asthma is the most common chronic paediatric illness. There is no cure for asthma but good treatment to palliate symptoms is available. Asthma is more common in children with a personal or family history of atopy, increased severity and frequency of wheezing episodes, and presence of variable airway obstruction or bronchial hyperresponsiveness. Precipitating factors for symptoms and acute episodes include infection, house dust mites, allergens from pet animals, exposure to tobacco smoke, and exercise.
Methods and outcomes
We conducted a systematic review and aimed to answer the following clinical questions: What are the effects of single-agent prophylaxis in children taking as-needed inhaled beta2 agonists for asthma? What are the effects of additional prophylactic treatments in childhood asthma inadequately controlled by standard-dose inhaled corticosteroids? We searched: Medline, Embase, The Cochrane Library, and other important databases up to June 2010 (Clinical Evidence reviews are updated periodically, please check our website for the most up-to-date version of this review). We included harms alerts from relevant organisations such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
We found 48 systematic reviews, RCTs, or observational studies that met our inclusion criteria. We performed a GRADE evaluation of the quality of evidence for interventions.
In this systematic review we present information relating to the effectiveness and safety of the following interventions: beta2 agonists (long-acting), corticosteroids (inhaled standard or higher doses), leukotriene receptor antagonists (oral), omalizumab, and theophylline (oral).
Childhood asthma can be difficult to distinguish from viral wheeze and can affect up to 20% of children.
Regular monotherapy with inhaled corticosteroids improves symptoms, reduces exacerbations, and improves physiological outcomes in children with asthma symptoms requiring regular short-acting beta2 agonist treatment. Their effect on final adult height is minimal and when prescribed within recommended doses have an excellent safety record. Regular monotherapy with other treatments is not superior to low-dose inhaled corticosteroids.
Leukotriene receptor antagonists may have a role as first-line prophylaxis in very young children.
There is consensus that long-acting beta2 agonists should not be used for first-line prophylaxis.
CAUTION: Monotherapy with long-acting beta2 agonists does not reduce asthma exacerbations but may increase the chance of severe asthma episodes.
Theophylline was used as first-line prevention before the introduction of inhaled corticosteroids. Although there is weak evidence that theophylline is superior to placebo, theophylline should no longer be used as first-line prophylaxis in childhood asthma because of clear evidence of the efficacy and safety of inhaled corticosteroids.
Theophylline has serious adverse effects (cardiac arrhythmia, convulsions) if therapeutic blood concentrations are exceeded.
When low-dose inhaled corticosteroids fail to control asthma, most older children will respond to one of the add-on options available, which include addition of long-acting beta2 agonists, addition of leukotriene receptor antagonists, addition of theophylline, or increased dose of inhaled corticosteroid. However, we don't know for certain how effective these additional treatments are because we found no/limited RCT evidence of benefit compared with adding placebo/no additional treatments.
Addition of long-acting beta2 agonists may reduce symptoms and improve physiological measures compared with increased dose of corticosteroids in older children. Long-acting beta2 agonists are not currently licensed for use in children under 5 years of age.Consensus suggests that younger children are likely to benefit from addition of leukotriene receptor antagonists. Although there is weak evidence that addition of theophylline to inhaled corticosteroids does improve symptom control and reduce exacerbations, theophylline should only be added to inhaled corticosteroids in children aged over 5 years when the addition of long-acting beta2 agonists and leukotriene receptor antagonists have both been unsuccessful.
Omalizumab may be indicated in the secondary care setting for older children (aged over 5 years) with poorly controlled allergic asthma despite use of intermediate- and high-dose inhaled corticosteroids once the diagnosis is confirmed and compliance and psychological issues are addressed. However, we need more data to draw firm conclusions.