By Harvard Health Blog
Does winter in the Northeast make you think of snowmen, warm fires, and hot chocolate? Or, does it instead inspire visions of runny noses, congestion, and cough? Although it is less rosy, I know readers with asthma may be picturing the latter.
People with asthma get respiratory infections more often
In general, people with asthma tend to get sick more easily, and illnesses can trigger asthma attacks. In my practice, we generally start seeing an increase in the number of asthma attacks, or asthma flares, once the ground frosts. If you are fortunate enough not to have asthma, chances are that you know somebody who does. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that rates of asthma in the United States are soaring, such that today, 1 in 12 people has it. Because people with asthma get sick more often, it is logical to suspect that they will often be prescribed antibiotics. But do antibiotics really help? New research is helping to answer this very question.
Do antibiotics help people with asthma get back to normal faster?
A study recently published in the Journal of American Medicine Association looked at the effectiveness of an antibiotic called azithromycin for treating asthma attacks. The trial, nicknamed AZALEA, aimed to look at whether adding azithromycin to the usual treatment helped people recover from asthma attacks more quickly. This was of interest to the researchers for several reasons: For starters, azithromycin is a very commonly prescribed antibiotic, so it is important to know if it works. Also, studies showed that an older drug called telithromycin actually did help people heal from asthma attacks more quickly. Doctors rarely prescribe telithromycin today because it can cause serious side effects. But azithromycin is similar in many ways, so it might be a good alternative.
Azithromycin did not help the asthma attacks improve
Participants in the study were separated into two groups. One group was given usual treatment for an asthma attack (a high potency anti-inflammatory pill and breathing treatments), plus azithromycin. The other group was given standard treatment for an asthma attack plus a placebo, or sugar pill. To help reduce confusion, the researchers excluded asthma sufferers who had taken antibiotics — for any reason — during the four weeks prior to the study.. At the end of the study, the researchers concluded that both groups recovered from their asthma attacks at the same speed.
This means azithromycin did not make people recover any better or any faster, and those that did not receive azithromycin still got better.
So, should you take antibiotics for asthma? No, but there are rare exceptions
There are several take-aways from this study. First, azithromycin did not make any difference in making people with asthma attacks feel better. As a clinician, this makes a lot of sense to me. Azithromycin was the most commonly prescribed antibiotic in the U.S. in 2010, and remains heavily prescribed today. But it’s popularity comes at a cost. Many of the bacteria that typically cause respiratory infections in adults have become resistant to it. Furthermore, most adults with asthma attacks will have viral respiratory infections, and antibiotics don’t kill viruses. That’s why I rarely prescribe an antibiotic for an asthma attack. When I do, I rarely prescribe azithromycin, because it will only work on a small fraction of bacteria. There are certainly some exceptions; smokers, in particular, can be different. But overall, the results of this study make intuitive sense.
A second, and very interesting, conclusion was that 90% of the asthmatics initially considered for entry into this study had received antibiotics in the preceding month! We don’t know why these antibiotics were prescribed, but the rate of antibiotics prescribed for people with asthma is concerning. Common sense makes me suspect that this is too high a rate of antibiotic prescription. I’ve never yet had the need to give 9 out of 10 patients I see antibiotics. This makes me worry that antibiotics may be over-prescribed in asthmatics, and I would like to know why.
I hope that everyone out there has as healthy a winter as possible, filled only with snowmen, warm fires, and hot chocolate. For the asthma sufferers out there, I hope you know that research like this helps us providers learn how to take care of you better. And that is a very warm thought.