Asthma is a condition due to airway inflammation often associated with an allergic component. It is characterized by symptoms that can include chest tightness, cough, shortness of breath and wheezing, which may be intermittent or persistent. Proper diagnosis requires a thorough history, physical examination, appropriate lung function testing and allergy testing.
Acute, or severe asthma, can present as a rapid or gradual increase in symptoms resulting in an acute attack or exacerbation. Chronic asthma, or persistent asthma, may present with intermittent symptoms or even nocturnal awakening.
Control of asthma is defined as an absence or decrease in asthmatic symptoms and improvement in the quality of life. A 5-question survey known as the ACT defines uncontrolled asthma on the basis of a score of less than 19 out of a possible 25.
The key to controlling asthma is through the regular use of asthma controller medications such as inhaled corticosteroids, antileukotrienes, or combination inhalers containing inhaled corticosteroids and long-acting bronchodilators. These drugs treat the underlying cause of asthma, namely airway inflammation. They are most often delivered by inhalers with the exception of the antileukotrienes, which are taken orally. Short-acting bronchodilators such as albuterol, are considered relievers and are meant to be used on an as-needed basis or before exercise. The need for a reliever inhaler more than 2 days a week or 2 nights a month is a sign of poorly controlled asthma.
Recent studies have demonstrated adherence to asthma medications averages only 50%. In other words, one-half of patients do not take their controller medicine regularly. This is extremely important, as improved adherence is associated with less asthma attacks and an improved quality of life and more symptom-free days. Thus non-adherence is associated with a lack of asthma control, poor health outcomes and increased costs.
The reasons for the lack of regular use of asthma control drugs are varied. The cost, co-pays and coverage for these drugs varies widely and high costs can be a barrier for many people. Some patients are worried about ‘being dependent’ on daily medications while many people simply find it hard to remember to take medication once or twice a day. Additionally, correct inhaler technique is vital to ensure that the medicine, when taken, is effective.
The physician-patient relationship is vital in improving adherence. Understanding, trust and mutual respect are absolutely necessary between a patient and physician. For example, patients should understand the difference between an oral steroid like prednisone and an inhaled corticosteroid in terms of their safety and efficacy. Patients should feel confident in why they are taking certain medications and in how they are taking it. Regular follow up visits are vital. Asthma can have fluctuations that require adjusting therapy up or down depending on the situation. Thus prescribing or changing an asthma regime requires feedback to insure safety, efficacy and compliance. Adjustments in dosing, if needed, can be made on subsequent visits, usually 4-6 weeks apart, or as long as 90 days.
Newly developed electronic monitoring devices have the potential to be a very important asset to remind and reinforce with patients when to take their medication. Such devices may even provide vocal reminders that the medicines are due. Documenting the regular use of these medications is of great use to physicians as well as to patients.
In addition to devices that remind us to take medication, the future of asthma therapy will no doubt include lung function peak flow monitoring via the smart phone. This will allow both patients and physicians to get a much fuller picture of an individual’s asthma and allow far greater individualized care.
Managing asthma successfully hinges upon using controller medications, such as inhaled steroid, regularly. Regular use improves symptoms and quality of life and reduces the risk of asthma exacerbations. For many, however, adherence can be challenging. Effecting behavior change is quite difficult and time consuming. It requires reinforcement and even such devices as peak expiratory flow meters to be used by the patient at home. Technology should lead the way in helping patients and physicians alike improve asthma control. In recent years we have all seen tremendous advances in technology that have not only made our lives better, but improved the quality of our lives. Such an outcome would be welcome in the care of our asthmatic patients. As Leaders in Allergy and Asthma Care, Allergy Partners is actively working to bring this technology to our patients.