Asthma outcomes: Exacerbations

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The goals of asthma treatment include preventing recurrent exacerbations. Yet there is no consensus about the terminology for describing or defining “exacerbation” or about how to characterize an episode's severity.


National Institutes of Health institutes and other federal agencies convened an expert group to propose how asthma exacerbation should be assessed as a standardized asthma outcome in future asthma clinical research studies.


We used comprehensive literature reviews and expert opinion to compile a list of asthma exacerbation outcomes and classified them as either core (required in future studies), supplemental (used according to study aims and standardized), or emerging (requiring validation and standardization). This work was discussed at a National Institutes of Health–organized workshop in March 2010 and finalized in September 2011.


No dominant definition of “exacerbation” was found. The most widely used definitions included 3 components, all related to treatment, rather than symptoms: (1) systemic use of corticosteroids, (2) asthma-specific emergency department visits or hospitalizations, and (3) use of short-acting β-agonists as quick-relief (sometimes referred to as “rescue” or “reliever”) medications.


The working group participants propose that the definition of “asthma exacerbation” be “a worsening of asthma requiring the use of systemic corticosteroids to prevent a serious outcome.” As core outcomes, they propose inclusion and separate reporting of several essential variables of an exacerbation. Furthermore, they propose the development of a standardized, component-based definition of “exacerbation” with clear thresholds of severity for each component.

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