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Asthma pills may work just as well as inhalers in the real world

May 05, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey
  • Oral drugs may be as effective as inhaled drugs in relieving asthma symptoms because they are easier to take, suggests a new study.
Oral drugs may be as effective as inhaled drugs in relieving asthma symptoms… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Asthma pills appear to work just as well as inhaled steroids at relieving asthma symptoms in real-life settings, researchers have found, apparently because people prefer swallowing a pill to sticking something up their nose.

In one clinical trial, asthma sufferers who took as a first-line therapy the oral medications Singulair or Accolate, each a brand of leukotriene-receptor antagonists, reported as much symptom relief on a quality-of-life survey at two months as those who used an inhaled glucocorticoid, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In a separate trial, patients added one of those drugs or a different type of drug, called a long-acting beta agonist (also an inhaled medication), to their usual regimen of inhaled steroids. Again, after two months the researchers found no difference in the regimens’ effectiveness.

Two years later, the results were similar, researchers noted, if not quite equivalent.

Even though inhalers have outperformed oral drugs in randomized, controlled studies, the new research compared the two in a more real-world setting: The 650 enrolled patients (ages 12 to 80) were followed for two years, not weeks, and they were responsible for getting their own medications and taking them on schedule.

About 65% of patients who took oral drugs as a first-line defense, and 74% who took them as an add-on, stuck with their therapy, compared, respectively, to 41% of those who used an inhaler as a first-line defense and 46% of those who used the beta agonist as an add-on. 

An accompanying editorial by two doctors from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden nicely sums up a possible explanation:

“We think this alternative approach works in the real-world setting primarily because it is easier to take a pill once or twice a day than to use an inhaler.”

Of course, asthma symptoms vary by person, and some treatments work better than others. The Mayo Clinic has a run-down on asthma medications.

More study is needed, as the researchers point out. But for some patients it appears that pills may be an option that ultimately helps them to better control their asthma.

RELATED: With asthma rates on the rise, here’s how to control symptoms.

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