Pathogenesis and management of aspirin-intolerant asthma

Treat Respir Med. 2005;4(5):325-36. doi: 10.2165/00151829-200504050-00004.


In 2-23% of adults with asthma, and rarely in children with asthma, aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) cause asthma exacerbations. Within 3 hours of ingestion of aspirin/NSAIDs, individuals with aspirin-intolerant asthma (AIA) develop bronchoconstriction, often accompanied by rhinorrhea, conjunctival irritation, and scarlet flush. In severe cases, a single therapeutic dose of aspirin/NSAIDs can provoke violent bronchospasm, loss of consciousness, and respiratory arrest. In order to diagnose AIA, oral, inhaled, nasal or intravenous aspirin challenge tests are performed in facilities where experienced physicians are present and emergency treatment is available. The exact differences in the pathogenesis of AIA and other types of asthma are not fully understood. The interference of aspirin/NSAIDs with arachidonic acid metabolism in the lungs plays an important role in the mechanism of AIA; inhibition of cyclo-oxygenase is accompanied by overproduction of cysteinyl leukotrienes (cys-LTs). It has been proposed that overproduction of cys-LTs, together with removal by aspirin/NSAIDs of the 'brake' imposed by the bronchodilator prostaglandin E2, may cause an asthma attack in patients with AIA. Development of a suitable animal model to investigate the pathogenesis of AIA would help to clarify this question. Although it is still controversial whether leukotriene modifiers are more effective in patients with AIA compared with other types of asthma, because LT plays an important role in the pathogenesis of AIA, leukotriene modifiers are the preferred medication for the long-term control of AIA. Add-on efficacy of leukotriene modifiers has been confirmed in patients with AIA already treated with inhaled corticosteroids. However, this does not mean that aspirin/NSAIDs can be safely taken by aspirin-sensitive patients treated with leukotriene modifiers. To prevent attacks of AIA, sensitive patients should avoid the use of aspirin/NSAIDs or use selective cyclo-oxygenase 2 inhibitors when required. When patients with AIA need aspirin for specific situations they should receive aspirin desensitization therapy or treatment with selective cyclo-oxygenase 2 inhibitors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / adverse effects*
  • Aspirin / adverse effects*
  • Asthma* / chemically induced
  • Asthma* / drug therapy
  • Bronchoconstriction / drug effects
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Glucocorticoids / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Leukotriene Antagonists / therapeutic use*


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Leukotriene Antagonists
  • Aspirin