Asthma Patients May Be Able to Cut Dosage and Cut Drug Bills

By: Doug Miller, KHOU Email
By: Doug Miller, KHOU Email

GALVESTON — Asthma sufferers using steroid inhalers may not need to take those medications every day, according to a new study at UTMB. That could save Americans billions of dollars a year in drug expenses.

About 20-million asthmatics in this country inhale daily doses of steroids in medications like Aerobid, Flovent and Symbicort. But the study indicates many of those people could get the same effects by inhaling those drugs only when they suffer an asthma attack.

"And the advantage of using it when symptoms occur, as opposed to using it every day, is that we can achieve the same degree of control with half the dose of inhaled steroids," said Dr. William Calhoun, a vice chair for research at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

For decades now, people suffering asthma attacks have used what are commonly called "rescue inhalers," such as Proventil and Ventolin, to quickly restore normal breathing. Many of them also inhale steroids daily, usually once in the morning and once at night. 

Researchers emphasized the study tested only patients with mild to moderate asthma. The results probably wouldn’t apply to people suffering from more severe asthma or attacks triggered by exercise, Calhoun said.

The study will be published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, UTMB officials said. Calhoun believes it may help convince the National Institutes of Health to change the standard protocols for treating asthma in the United States.

The study tested different strategies for medicating 342 patients. Over the course of nine months, researchers determined there were no significant differences between people who used their steroid inhalers daily and people who used them with "rescue inhalers" only when they suffered an asthma attack.

The researchers estimated that American asthmatics reducing their dosage would save about $2-billion a year in pharmaceutical expenses.
"That’s a lot of money," Calhoun said. "Two billion dollars of steroid money could be saved if we were to use this sort of an approach in the appropriately selected patients."

But Calhoun emphasized that each patient should consult his or her physician before changing medication strategies.

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