Distinguishing severe asthma phenotypes: role of age at onset and eosinophilic inflammation

J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2004 Jan;113(1):101-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2003.10.041.


Background: Asthma is a heterogeneous process, yet little is understood regarding phenotypes.

Objective: To determine whether phenotypic differences exist between early-onset, severe asthma as compared with late-onset disease and whether the presence or absence of eosinophilia influences the phenotypes.

Methods: Cross-sectional analysis of integrated clinical, physiologic, and pathologic data collected from 80 subjects with severe asthma. Subjects were divided into those with asthma onset before age 12 years (n = 50) versus after age 12 (n = 30) and by the presence or absence of lung eosinophils.

Results: Subjects with early-onset, severe asthma had significantly more allergen sensitivity (skin test positivity, 98% vs 76%, P <.007) and more allergic symptoms (P values all <or=.02) than subjects with late-onset asthma. In contrast, subjects with late-onset asthma had lower lung function (P values =.05 to.07) than early-onset, despite a shorter (P <.0001) duration of illness. Both groups had a high degree of general asthma symptoms, but those with persistent eosinophils from either age at onset group had significantly more (multiple P values <.05). Similarly, the presence of eosinophils in either age at onset group was associated with the lowest lung function (P <or=.02). Although late-onset asthma was associated with the highest numbers of lung eosinophils (P <.007), only early-onset severe asthma was associated with a lymphocytic/mast cell inflammatory process. Finally, subjects with late-onset asthma without eosinophils had no subepithelial basement membrane thickening, suggesting a different pathologic process.

Conclusions: Differentiating severe asthma by age at onset and presence or absence of eosinophils identifies phenotypes of asthma, which could benefit subsequent genetic and therapeutic studies.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Age of Onset
  • Asthma / diagnosis*
  • Cell Count
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Eosinophils / immunology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Male
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Severity of Illness Index