Giving inhaled steroids to toddlers at high risk of developing asthma helps them in the short term but doesn't prevent the chronic condition as had hoped, a federal study suggests.
Similarly, a study in Denmark found that taking inhaled steroids doesn't stave off asthma in infants.
"Although inhaled corticosteroids may control persistent or severe wheezing, such drugs should not be used in the hope of altering the course of asthma in childhood," wrote Drs. Diane Gold and Anne Fuhlbrigge of Harvard Medical School, who had no role in the research.
Both studies appear in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.
Asthma is the most common chronic childhood disease in the United States, afflicting about 9 million children including 1.5 million under the age of 5, according to federal statistics.
Inhaled steroids are often the first line of defense prescribed to asthma sufferers to control their symptoms. The drug works by reducing inflammation and opening the airways to help patients breathe more easily.
Previous research in older children and adults have shown that inhaled steroids are most effective in treating persistent asthma. But few studies have been done on younger children to see if the inhalant can prevent asthma attacks if given early
In the government study, 285 high-risk preschoolers took either twice daily doses of inhaled Flovent or a dummy medication. After two years of treatment, researchers found the drug had no lasting effect. Children who took the inhaled drug experienced roughly the same number of episode-free days as their counterparts.
However, the inhaled drug seemed to help users during the course of treatment. Treated children had fewer and less severe symptoms than those who didn't take the drug. For example, they had an average of two days of symptoms a month compared to four in the group that didn't take the drug.
The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Several researchers reported receiving fees from Flovent's maker, GlaxoSmithKline, as well as other companies that make asthma drugs.
In the Danish study funded by drug maker AstraZeneca, 411 infants with a history of wheezing received either the inhalant Pulmicort or a dummy medication. After three years of treatment, researchers found the drug had no effect on controlling asthmatic episodes in either group.