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Thorax. 2003 Jan;58(1):81-8.

The pulmonary physician in critical care . 12: Acute severe asthma in the intensive care unit.

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Intensive Care Unit, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford OX3 9DU, UK.


Most deaths from acute asthma occur outside hospital, but the at-risk patient may be recognised on the basis of prior ICU admission and asthma medication history. Patients who fail to improve significantly in the emergency department should be admitted to an HDU or ICU for observation, monitoring, and treatment. Hypoxia, dehydration, acidosis, and hypokalaemia render the severe acute asthmatic patient vulnerable to cardiac dysrrhythmia and cardiorespiratory arrest. Mechanical ventilation may be required for a small proportion of patients for whom it may be life saving. Aggressive bronchodilator (continuous nebulised beta agonist) and anti-inflammatory therapy must continue throughout the period of mechanical ventilation. Recognised complications of mechanical ventilation include hypotension, barotrauma, and nosocomial pneumonia. Low ventilator respiratory rates, long expiratory times, and small tidal volumes help to prevent hyperinflation. Volatile anaesthetic agents may produce bronchodilation in patients resistant to beta agonists. Fatalities in acute asthmatics admitted to HDU/ICU are rare.

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