Acute exacerbations of asthma: epidemiology, biology and the exacerbation-prone phenotype

Clin Exp Allergy. 2009 Feb;39(2):193-202. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2222.2008.03157.x.


Asthma is a highly prevalent chronic respiratory disease affecting 300 million people world-wide. A significant fraction of the cost and morbidity of asthma derives from acute care for asthma exacerbations. In the United States alone, there are approximately 15 million outpatient visits, 2 million emergency room visits, and 500,000 hospitalizations each year for management of acute asthma. Common respiratory viruses, especially rhinoviruses, cause the majority of exacerbations in children and adults. Infection of airway epithelial cells with rhinovirus causes the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines, as well as recruitment of inflammatory cells, particularly neutrophils, lymphocytes, and eosinophils. The host response to viral infection is likely to influence susceptibility to asthma exacerbation. Having had at least one exacerbation is an important risk factor for recurrent exacerbations suggesting an 'exacerbation-prone' subset of asthmatics. Factors underlying the 'exacerbation-prone' phenotype are incompletely understood but include extrinsic factors: cigarette smoking, medication non-compliance, psychosocial factors, and co-morbidities such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, rhinosinusitis, obesity, and intolerance to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications; as well as intrinsic factors such as deficient epithelial cell production of the anti-viral type I interferons (IFN-alpha and IFN-beta). A better understanding of the biologic mechanisms of host susceptibility to recurrent exacerbations will be important for developing more effective preventions and treatments aimed at reducing the significant cost and morbidity associated with this important global health problem.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Allergens / immunology
  • Asthma / epidemiology*
  • Asthma / etiology
  • Asthma / physiopathology*
  • Asthma / therapy
  • Comorbidity
  • Humans
  • Lung / physiopathology
  • Models, Biological
  • Patient Compliance
  • Psychology
  • Virus Diseases / immunology
  • Virus Diseases / physiopathology


  • Allergens