Asthma Patients Advised to Continue Therapy During Pandemic

Randy Dotinga

May 16, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's  Coronavirus Resource Center.

An allergist and a pediatric pulmonologist cautioned colleagues that COVID-19 could be spawning hazardous behavior as patients question whether they should continue using immune-suppressing drugs during the pandemic.

"In fact, there's no data to support this at this time. Maintaining adequate asthma control is the current CDC recommendation," said pediatric pulmonologist John Carl, MD, of Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital. Patients, he said, should be advised to "follow your asthma action plan as outlined by your primary care or specialty clinician and communicate about evolving symptoms, such as fever rather than just congestion, wheezing, and coughing, etc."

Dr. Carl spoke in a May 7 webinar about asthma and COVID-19 with Lakiea Wright, M.D., a physician specializing in internal medicine and allergy and immunology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and medical director of clinical affairs for Thermo Fisher Scientific's ImmunoDiagnostics division. The webinar, sponsored by Thermo Fisher Scientific, included discussion of COVID-19 risks, disease management, and distinguishing between the virus and asthma.

In a follow-up interview, Dr. Wright said she's hearing from patients and parents who are concerned about whether people with asthma face a higher risk of COVID-19 infection. There's no evidence that they do, she said, but "the CDC states that individuals with moderate to severe asthma may be higher risk for moderate to severe disease from COVID-19 if they were to become infected."

Indeed, she said, "it is well established that viruses can trigger asthma." But, as she also noted, early research about the risk in patients with asthma is conflicting.

"Some studies suggest asthma may be a risk factor for hospitalization while other data suggests asthma is not a common risk factor for those hospitalized," Dr. Wright said.

She highlighted a recent study that suggests people with allergic asthma have "a reduced ACE2 gene expression in airway cells and thus decreased susceptibility to infection" by the novel coronavirus (J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2020 Apr 22. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2020.04.009).

Dr. Wright cautioned, however, that "this is a hypothesis and will need to be studied more."

For now, she said, patients "should follow their asthma action plan and take their inhalers, including inhaled corticosteroids, as prescribed by their health care providers."

Most patients are reasonable and do comply when their physicians explain why they should take a medication," she noted.

Dr. Carl agreed, and added that a short course of oral corticosteroids are also recommended to manage minor exacerbations and "prevent patients from having to arrive as inpatients in more acute settings and risk health system–related exposures to the current pandemic."

He cautioned, however, that metered-dose inhalers are preferable to nebulizers, and side vent ports should be avoided since they can aerosolize infectious agents and put health care providers and family members at risk.

Unfortunately, he said, there's been a shortage of short-acting beta agonist albuterol inhalers. This has been linked to hospitals trying to avoid the use of nebulizers.

Dr. Wright advised colleagues to focus on unique symptoms first, then address overlapping symptoms and other symptoms to differentiate between COVID-19 and asthma/allergy.

She noted that environmental allergy symptoms alone do not cause fever, a hallmark of COVID-19. Shortness of breath can be a distinguishing symptom for the virus, because this is not a common symptom of environmental allergies unless the patient has asthma, Dr. Wright said.

Cough can be an overlapping symptom because in environmental allergies, postnasal drip from allergic rhinitis can trigger cough, she explained. Nasal congestion and/or runny nose can develop with viral illnesses in general, but these are symptoms not included in the CDC's list of the most common COVID-19 symptoms. Severe fatigue and body aches aren't symptoms consistent with environmental allergies, Dr. Wright said.

Both Dr. Carl and Dr. Wright emphasized the importance of continuing routine asthma therapy during the pandemic.

"When discussing the importance of taking their inhaled steroids with patients, I also remind patients that asthma management is comprehensive," Dr. Wright said. "I want them to take their medications, but I also want them avoid or minimize exposure to triggers. Allergic and nonallergic triggers such as environmental tobacco smoke can exacerbate asthma."

In addition, she said, "it's important to take a detailed medical history to identify triggers. And it's important to conduct allergy testing to common environmental allergens to help identify allergic triggers and tailor environmental allergen control strategies based on the results. All of these strategies help patients keep their asthma well-controlled."

Dr. Carl and Dr. Wright report having no relevant disclosures.

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com.

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