Management of respiratory failure in status asthmaticus

Am J Respir Med. 2002;1(6):409-16. doi: 10.1007/BF03257168.


Status asthmaticus is a life-threatening episode of asthma that is refractory to usual therapy. Recent studies report an increase in the severity and mortality associated with asthma. In the airways, inflammatory cell infiltration and activation and cytokine generation produce airway injury and edema, bronchoconstriction and mucus plugging. The key pathophysiological consequence of severe airflow obstruction is dynamic hyperinflation. The resulting hypoxemia, tachypnea together with increased metabolic demands on the muscles of respiration may lead to respiratory muscle failure. The management of status asthmaticus involves intensive pharmacological therapy particularly with beta-adrenoceptor agonists (beta-agonists) and corticosteroids. Albuterol (salbutamol) is the most commonly used beta2-selective inhaled bronchodilator in the US. Epinephrine (adrenaline) or terbutaline, administered subcutaneously, have not been shown to provide greater bronchodilatation compared with inhaled beta-agonists. Corticosteroids such as methylprednisolone should be administered early. Aerosolized corticosteroids are not recommended for patients with status asthmaticus. Inhaled anticholinergic agents may be useful in patients refractory to inhaled beta-agonists and corticosteroids. In patients requiring mechanical ventilation, the strategy aims to avoid dynamic hyperinflation by enhancing expiratory time to allow complete exhalation. Complications of dynamic inflation are hypotension and barotrauma. Sedation with opioids, benzodiazepines or propofol is required to facilitate ventilator synchrony but neuromuscular blockade should be avoided as myopathy has been a reported complication. Overall, in the management of patients with status asthmaticus, the challenge to the pulmonary/critical care clinician is to provide optimal pharmacological and ventilatory support and avoid the adverse consequences of dynamic hyperinflation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Asthmatic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Bronchoscopy
  • Humans
  • Neuromuscular Blocking Agents / therapeutic use
  • Respiration, Artificial* / methods
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / etiology*
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / therapy*
  • Status Asthmaticus / complications*
  • Status Asthmaticus / physiopathology
  • Status Asthmaticus / therapy*


  • Anti-Asthmatic Agents
  • Neuromuscular Blocking Agents