Children who are referred to specialist care with asthma that does not respond to treatment (problematic severe asthma) are a heterogeneous group, with substantial morbidity. The evidence base for management is sparse, and is mostly based on data from studies in children with mild and moderate asthma and on extrapolation of data from studies in adults with severe asthma. In many children with severe asthma, the diagnosis is wrong or adherence to treatment is poor. The first step is a detailed diagnostic assessment to exclude an alternative diagnosis ("not asthma at all"), followed by a multidisciplinary approach to exclude comorbidities ("asthma plus") and to assess whether the child has difficult asthma (improves when the basic management needs, such as adherence and inhaler technique, are corrected) or true, therapy-resistant asthma (still symptomatic even when the basic management needs are resolved). In particular, environmental causes of secondary steroid resistance should be identified. An individualised treatment plan should be devised depending on the clinical and pathophysiological characterisation. Licensed therapeutic approaches include high-dose inhaled steroids, the Symbicort maintenance and reliever (SMART) regimen (with budesonide and formoterol fumarate), and anti-IgE therapy. Unlicensed treatments include methotrexate, azathioprine, ciclosporin, and subcutaneous terbutaline infusions. Paediatric data are needed on cytokine-specific monoclonal antibody therapies and bronchial thermoplasty. However, despite the interest in innovative approaches, getting the basics right in children with apparently severe asthma will remain the foundation of management for the foreseeable future.
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