The effectiveness of inhaled corticosteroids in the emergency department treatment of acute asthma: a meta-analysis

Ann Emerg Med. 2002 Aug;40(2):145-54. doi: 10.1067/mem.2002.124753.


Study objective: Inhaled corticosteroids (ICSs) are of proven benefit in the treatment of chronic asthma; however, their role in the management of acute asthma is unclear.

Methods: We performed a systematic review of randomized controlled trials involving children or adults treated in the emergency department for acute asthma with or without the addition of ICSs. Outcome measures included hospital admission, pulmonary function tests, and side effects.

Results: Seven trials were selected for inclusion in the primary analyses. ICSs versus placebo were compared; data were not available on 1 of these trials. In the remaining 6 trials, a total of 352 patients were studied (179 ICS-treated and 173 non-ICS-treated patients). Two trials compared ICSs plus systemic corticosteroids versus placebo plus systemic corticosteroids; 4 trials compared ICSs versus placebo. Patients treated with ICSs were less likely to be admitted to the hospital (odds ratio 0.30; 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.16 to 0.57) and showed small improvements in peak expiratory flows (weighted mean difference 8%; 95% CI 3% to 13%) Overall, the treatment was well tolerated, with few reports of adverse side effects. A secondary analysis compared ICSs alone versus systemic corticosteroids alone; in the 4 included trials, significant heterogeneity between the study results for admission rates precluded meaningful pooling of admission data.

Conclusion: There is evidence of decreased admission rates for patients with acute asthma treated with ICSs. However, there is insufficient evidence that ICS therapy results in clinically important changes in pulmonary function when used in acute asthma, and there is insufficient evidence that ICSs alone are as effective as systemic corticosteroids.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Administration, Inhalation
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / administration & dosage
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / therapeutic use*
  • Adult
  • Anti-Asthmatic Agents / administration & dosage
  • Anti-Asthmatic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / administration & dosage
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Asthma / drug therapy*
  • Child
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Glucocorticoids / administration & dosage
  • Humans
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Steroids


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Anti-Asthmatic Agents
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Steroids