Asthma symptoms, morbidity, and antiinflammatory use in inner-city children

K L Warman, E J Silver, R E Stein
Pediatrics 2001, 108 (2): 277-82

BACKGROUND: Asthma is a major cause of morbidity that disproportionately affects inner-city children. For children with persistent asthma, defined as having asthma symptoms 3 or more days per week or 3 or more nights per month, national guidelines recommend the use of daily antiinflammatory agents. Despite these recommendations, antiinflammatory agents remain underused, particularly in inner-city children with high asthma morbidity.

OBJECTIVES: The objectives of our study were to determine: 1) whether persistent asthma symptoms in inner-city children are related to acute care utilization and to the frequency of acute exacerbations; 2) whether children with persistent asthma are receiving recommended daily antiinflammatory agents; and 3) whether antiinflammatory medication use relates to sociodemographic factors, caretaker self-efficacy, the frequency of primary care visits, and/or measures of quality asthma care.

DESIGN AND METHODS: A 64-item telephone survey was administered between July 1996 and June 1997 to 219 parental caretakers of 2- to 12-year-old children who had been hospitalized with asthma at an inner-city medical center between January 1995 and February 1996. Persistent asthma symptoms were assessed by inquiring about the frequency of daily and nocturnal asthma symptoms over the last 4 weeks. Children's asthma severity was classified by applying the 1997 National Asthma Education and Prevention Program (NAEPP) Asthma Guidelines' severity classification scheme based on the frequency of asthma symptoms. Asthma morbidity was defined as the frequency of acute asthma exacerbations, emergency department visits and hospitalizations. Daily antiinflammatory medication use was compared by sociodemographic factors, caretaker self-efficacy, frequency of primary care visits, and measures of quality asthma home management.

RESULTS: In this sample, quantifying persistent asthma symptoms and applying the NAEPP symptom criteria identified 17% of the children with mild intermittent asthma, 27% with mild persistent asthma and 56% with moderate to severe persistent asthma. There were no differences in the age of the children in the 3 groups (mean age: 6 years). Asthma morbidity, as measured by the number of asthma exacerbations in the last 6 months, was significantly higher in the children with moderate to severe persistent asthma compared with children with mild intermittent asthma (9.8 vs 3.5) or mild persistent asthma (9.8 vs 4.5). In addition, there were significantly more emergency department visits in the moderate to severe group than in the mild persistent (3.05 vs 1.69) or mild intermittent group (3.05 vs 1.76). Lastly, as asthma symptom frequency increased, there were trends toward more hospitalizations and more days hospitalized. Overall, 35% of the 219 families reported giving daily antiinflammatory medications to their child (mostly cromolyn sodium). Of the 181 children (83%) who met NAEPP symptom criteria for persistent asthma, only 39% were receiving daily antiinflammatory treatment. Of the children with symptoms of moderate to severe asthma, only 15% were receiving inhaled steroids in contrast to the guidelines' recommendations. Use of antiinflammatory agents was not related to caretaker sociodemographic factors or self-efficacy scores. Measures of quality asthma home management, which included use of mattress covers, written plans, and peak flow meters, correlated positively with use of antiinflammatory agents. Children whose families reported using daily antiinflammatory medications had more primary care visits in the last 6 months than those children not receiving antiinflammatory medications.

CONCLUSION: Questioning parents about the frequency of their child's asthma symptoms is an important, inexpensive, and readily accessible bedside and office tool that may aid in the detection of persistent symptoms and help direct therapy. Our study suggests that classifying asthma severity by quantifying persistent asthma symptoms, as defined in the NAEPP Guidelines, is a clinically useful tool that relates to asthma morbidity. In our sample of previously hospitalized children with asthma, 83% met 1997 NAEPP symptom criteria for persistent asthma, and yet only 35% were receiving daily antiinflammatory agents. Use of antiinflammatory agents correlated positively with other indicators of quality asthma home management. Additional work is necessary to increase appropriate use of antiinflammatory agents in this population, and in particular, to increase inhaled steroid use for children with moderate or severe symptoms.

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