Objective: This paper reviews the literature regarding immunotherapy in the management of childhood asthma. Immunotherapy is a well established treatment of venom allergy and allergic rhinitis, however its use in asthma remains controversial.
Data sources: We reviewed the pediatric literature from 1966 to 1994 and evaluated the existing studies for clinical efficacy of immunotherapy in childhood asthma.
Study selection: Only 12 purely pediatric studies existed over the time period that we reviewed. The studies used a variety of different antigens including house dust, house dust mite, grass, mold, cat, dog, and combinations of antigens.
Results: In reviewing the studies, we assessed study duration, number of subjects, whether it was blinded, placebo controlled or open labeled, the measures of clinical efficacy and the assessments of specific and nonspecific bronchial reactivity. The studies were very heterogeneous, and therefore direct comparison and extrapolation of conclusions was difficult. The majority of the studies demonstrated either an improvement in asthmatic symptoms or a decrease in bronchial reactivity to the specific antigen employed, or both. The minority of studies demonstrated no clinical efficacy. The most consistent evidence of benefit was suggested in those trials employing house dust mite therapy, while immunotherapy for grass and cats demonstrated some benefit but the number of studies employing these treatments was very small. There are no trials that provide convincing evidence that immunotherapy with dog and mold antigens is effective for childhood reactive airway disease.
Conclusion: Asthma is a multifactorial disease with many triggers. In establishing a role for immunotherapy one must consider all the different aspects such as allergic triggers, environmental stresses, and viral infections. The literature is unclear as to when immunotherapy should be initiated for childhood asthma. While there are suggestions that immunotherapy should be considered for the child with mild or moderate asthma and dust mite sensitivity when pharmacotherapy is not efficacious, the immunomodulatory properties of immunotherapy may actually be more tailored for early intervention in asthma rather than for use once symptoms have occurred. More research is required in order to clarify whether immunotherapy should be recommended more often for the treatment of childhood asthma.