BACKGROUND: Oral corticosteroids used in short courses for acute asthma are regarded as safe, although the frequent use of these drugs may result in patients suffering from systemic side effects. It has become common practice for patients to increase their own inhaled corticosteroid intake when their asthma goes out of control, but it has never been established whether a high dose of inhaled corticosteroid can be as effective as a short course of oral corticosteroid in the treatment of acute exacerbations. METHODS: A multicentre, randomised, double blind, double dummy, parallel group study was undertaken to determine whether the introduction of a high dose of inhaled fluticasone propionate (2 mg daily) is as effective as a short reducing course of oral prednisolone (starting at 40 mg/day and reducing by 5 mg every other day) in the treatment of acute exacerbations of asthma not considered severe enough for admission to hospital but requiring treatment with oral corticosteroid. RESULTS: Four hundred and thirteen adult asthmatic subjects who presented to their general practitioner with an acute exacerbation of asthma were recruited in 47 general practices in the United Kingdom. Treatment failures, defined as a reduction in peak expiratory flow (PEF) to below 60% of the patient's best/predicted value on two consecutive occasions or persistent symptoms with no improvement on three consecutive days, occurred in 23% of patients who received oral prednisolone and 27% who received inhaled fluticasone propionate (difference in percentage of treatment failures 4.3, 95% CI -4.1 to 12.8, p = 0.31). In each group 48% were classified as treatment successes, defined as a 10% or greater increase in percentage best/predicted morning PEF. Both treatments were equally well tolerated. CONCLUSIONS: There is no evidence of a significant difference in efficacy between a reducing dose course of oral prednisolone and high dose inhaled fluticasone propionate in mild exacerbations of asthma which do not require admission to hospital.
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