Asthma Medication Issues - How Do You Know What's Safe?

  • It feels lately like there's always some kind of "bad news" in the headlines about one asthma medication or another. Asthma is a disease that benefits greatly from being treated, but do asthma medications actually do more harm than good?


    That's the question you might be asking yourself. After all, just in the past year, we've heard about issues with Serevent and Advair (which is a combination drug that contains Serevent), Xolair, and now Singulair. And of course, many people are concerned about taking inhaled steroids for the rest of their life (or about giving them to their kids during their formative years).

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    Yet the FDA continues to allow these medicines to be sold and doctors keep prescribing them. Has the whole world gone crazy?


    OK, hold on a minute. Let's sort out the facts from all the hype and hysteria. Yes, the FDA has issued warnings about some asthma medicines recently. Yes, Merck issued its own admission that Singulair might be linked to depression, anxiety and suicide. And yes, asthma medications CAN cause side effects.


    But, is there truly cause for alarm? The answer is a qualified No. What do I mean by that? Well, here's the thing. In almost every case, any risks associated with taking asthma medicines are often less than the risks a person with asthma faces when asthma control slips.


    In other words, taking your asthma medication might cause some problems, but not taking it is likely to cause much more severe and immediate problems.


    The FDA has required what is called a "black box warning" on literature for Xolair, Advair, and Serevent. Advair and Serevent, which fall into the long acting bronchodilator class of asthma drugs, received the black box warning because studies showed a increase in the rate of serious illnesses and death. But the total number of people affected was actually quite low.


    Xolair, an injectable asthma drug, got the warning because a small number of people overall have had allergic reactions to it. Both of these black box warnings occurred more because of the severity of the possible reactions than because of the actual frequency.


    In the case of Singulair, the danger appears to be somewhat the same. While there have been people who became anxious and/or depressed after starting on Singulair, and a few may have even considered suicide, the FDA has taken no action to date. All of the news headlines we saw in the past month were related to Merck's (the pharmaceutical manufacturer) voluntary admission that they needed to study the link between Singulair and depression more closely to see if there really is a cause for concern.


    So, what's the bottom line? Talk to your doctor.


    The decision as to what asthma medication(s) to take is always going to be an individual one. Only you and your doctor can adequately weigh risks vs. benefits and figure out what the best combination is for you. So, as long as you're feeling OK, don't stop taking your asthma medication without talking with your doctor, just because you're afraid. Get the facts and make an informed decision.

  • Find more information on asthma medication concerns:

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Published On: April 21, 2008