Medical and ventilatory management of status asthmaticus

B D Levy, B Kitch, C H Fanta
Intensive Care Medicine 1998, 24 (2): 105-17
Despite improved understanding of the basic mechanisms underlying asthma, morbidity and mortality remain high, especially in the "inner cities." The treatment of choice in status asthmaticus includes high doses of inhaled beta 2-agonists, systemic corticosteroids, and supplemental oxygen. The roles of theophylline and anticholinergics remain controversial, although in general these agents appear to add little to the bronchodilator effect of inhaled beta-agonists in most patients. Anti-leukotriene medications have not yet been evaluated in acute asthma. Other therapies, such as magnesium sulfate and heliox, have their advocates but are not recommended as part of routine care. If pharmacological therapy does not reverse severe airflow obstruction in the asthmatic attack, mechanical ventilation may be temporarily required. Based on our current understanding of ventilator-induced lung injury, optimal ventilation of asthmatic patients avoids excessive lung inflation by limiting minute ventilation and prolonging expiratory time, despite consequent hypercapnia. Unless respiratory function is extremely unstable, the use of paralytic agents is discouraged because of the increased risk of intensive care myopathy. Patients who have suffered respiratory failure due to asthma are at increased risk for subsequent death due to asthma (14% mortality at 3 years) and should receive very close medical follow-up. In general, severe asthmatic attacks can best be prevented by early intervention in the outpatient setting. In the words of Dr. Thomas Petty, "... the best treatment of status asthmaticus is to treat it three days before it occurs".

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