Evaluation and management of the critically ill adult asthmatic in the emergency department setting

Am J Emerg Med. 2021 Jun:44:441-451. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2020.03.029. Epub 2020 Mar 19.


Introduction: Asthma is a common reason for presentation to the Emergency Department and is associated with significant morbidity and mortality. While patients may have a relatively benign course, there is a subset of patients who present in a critical state and require emergent management.

Objective: This narrative review provides evidence-based recommendations for the assessment and management of patients with severe asthma.

Discussion: It is important to consider a broad differential diagnosis for the cause and potential mimics of asthma exacerbation. Once the diagnosis is determined, the majority of the assessment is based upon the clinical examination. First line therapies for severe exacerbations include inhaled short-acting beta agonists, inhaled anticholinergics, intravenous steroids, and magnesium. Additional therapies for refractory cases include parenteral epinephrine or terbutaline, helium‑oxygen mixture, and consideration of ketamine. Intravenous fluids should be administered, as many of these patients are dehydrated and at risk for hypotension if they receive positive pressure ventilatory support. Noninvasive positive pressure ventilation may prevent the need for endotracheal intubation. If mechanical ventilation is required, it is important to avoid breath stacking by setting a low respiratory rate and allowing permissive hypercapnia. Patients with severe asthma exacerbations will require intensive care unit admission.

Conclusions: This review provides evidence-based recommendations for the assessment and management of severe asthma with a focus on the emergency clinician.

Keywords: Asthma; Beta agonist; Critical; Glucocorticoids; Lung; Obstruction; Pulmonary; Severe.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Asthma / diagnosis*
  • Asthma / therapy*
  • Critical Illness*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Emergency Service, Hospital*
  • Humans