Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that affects over 300 million adults and children worldwide. It is characterised by wheeze, cough, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. Symptoms typically are intermittent and may worsen over a short time, leading to an exacerbation. Asthma exacerbations can be serious, leading to hospitalisation or even death in rare cases. Exacerbations may be treated by increasing an individual's usual medication and providing additional medication, such as oral steroids. Although antibiotics are sometimes included in the treatment regimen, bacterial infections are thought to be responsible for only a minority of exacerbations, and current guidance states that antibiotics should be reserved for cases in which clear signs, symptoms, or laboratory test results are suggestive of bacterial infection.
To determine the efficacy and safety of antibiotics in the treatment of asthma exacerbations.
We searched the Cochrane Airways Trials Register, which contains records compiled from multiple electronic and handsearched resources. We also searched trial registries and reference lists of primary studies. We conducted the most recent search in October 2017.
We included studies comparing antibiotic therapy for asthma exacerbations in adults or children versus placebo or usual care not involving an antibiotic. We allowed studies including any type of antibiotic, any dose, and any duration, providing the aim was to treat the exacerbation. We included parallel studies of any duration conducted in any setting and planned to include cluster trials. We excluded cross-over trials. We included studies reported as full-text articles, those published as abstracts only, and unpublished data.
At least two review authors screened the search results for eligible studies. We extracted outcome data, assessed risk of bias in duplicate, and resolved discrepancies by involving another review author. We analysed dichotomous data as odds ratios (ORs) or risk differences (RDs), and continuous data as mean differences (MDs), all with a fixed-effect model. We described skewed data narratively. We graded the results and presented evidence in 'Summary of findings' tables for each comparison. Primary outcomes were intensive care unit/high dependence unit (ICU/HDU) admission, duration of symptoms/exacerbations, and all adverse events. Seconday outcomes were mortality, length of hospital admission, relapse after index presentation, and peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR).
Six studies met our inclusion criteria and included a total of 681 adults and children with exacerbations of asthma. Mean age in the three studies in adults ranged from 36.2 to 41.2 years. The three studies in children applied varied inclusion criteria, ranging from one to 18 years of age. Five studies explicitly excluded participants with obvious signs and symptoms of bacterial infection (i.e. those clearly meeting current guidance to receive antibiotics). Four studies investigated macrolide antibiotics, and two studies investigated penicillin (amoxicillin and ampicillin) antibiotics; both studies using penicillin were conducted over 35 years ago. Five studies compared antibiotics versus placebo, and one was open-label. Study follow-up ranged from one to twelve weeks. Trials were of varied methodological quality, and we were able to perform only limited meta-analysis.None of the included trials reported ICU/HDU admission, although one participant in the placebo group of a study including children with status asthmaticus experienced a respiratory arrest and was ventilated. Four studies reported asthma symptoms, but we were able to combine results for only two macrolide studies of 416 participants; the MD in diary card symptom score was -0.34 (95% confidence interval (CI) -0.60 to -0.08), with lower scores (on a 7 point scale) denoting improved symptoms. Two macrolide studies reported symptom-free days. One study of 255 adults authors reported the percentage of symptom-free days at 10 days as 16% in the antibiotic group and 8% in the placebo group. In a further study of 40 children study authors reported significantly more symptom-free days at all time points in the antibiotic group compared with the usual care group. The same study reported the duration in days of the index asthma exacerbation, again favouring the antibiotic group. One study of a penicillin including 69 participants reported asthma symptoms at hospital discharge; the between-group difference for both studies was reported as non-significant.We combined data for serious adverse events from three studies involving 502 participants, but events were rare; the three trials reported only 10 events: five in the antibiotic group and five in the placebo group. We combined data for all adverse events (AEs) from three studies, but the effect estimate is imprecise (OR 0.99, 95% CI 0.69 to 1.43). No deaths were reported in any of the included studies.Two studies investigating penicillins reported admission duration; neither study reported a between-group difference. In one study (263 participants) of macrolides, two participants in each arm were reported as experiencing a relapse, defined as a further exacerbation, by the six-week time points. We combined PEFR endpoint results at 10 days for two macrolide studies; the result favoured antibiotics over placebo (MD 23.42 L/min, 95% CI 5.23 to 41.60). One study in children reported the maximum peak flow recorded during the follow-up period, favouring the clarithromycin group, but the confidence interval includes no difference (MD 38.80, 95% CI -11.19 to 88.79).Grading of outcomes ranged from moderate to very low quality, with quality of outcomes downgraded for suspicion of publication bias, indirectness, imprecision, and poor methodological quality of studies.
We found limited evidence that antibiotics given at the time of an asthma exacerbation may improve symptoms and PEFR at follow-up compared with standard care or placebo. However, findings were inconsistent across the six heterogeneous studies included, two of the studies were conducted over 30 years ago and most of the participants included in this review were recruited from emergency departments, limiting the applicability of findings to this population. Therefore we have limited confidence in the results. We found insufficient evidence about several patient-important outcomes (e.g. hospital admission) to form conclusions. We were unable to rule out a difference between groups in terms of all adverse events, but serious adverse events were rare.