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Eur Respir J. 1994 Mar;7(3):579-91.

Theophylline in the management of asthma: time for reappraisal?

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Dept of Thoracic Medicine, National Heart and Lung Institute, London, UK.


Theophylline has been used for several decades in the treatment of asthma and remains the most widely prescribed anti-asthma drug worldwide, although the development of newer anti-asthma medications, especially inhaled steroids, has resulted in declining use of theophylline in industrialized countries. Theophylline is now considered to be a bronchodilator, but it is increasingly recognized that theophylline has other anti-asthma activities, which may be more important. Theophylline, even at low plasma concentrations, inhibits the late asthmatic reaction following allergen challenge. These clinical pharmacological observations are substantiated by experimental animal and in vitro data showing that theophylline has several anti-inflammatory activities relevant to asthma. These include the inhibition of cytokine synthesis and release, the inhibition of inflammatory cell activation and microvascular leakage, and the prevention of airway hyperresponsiveness induced by airway inflammation. Theophylline appears to have immunomodulatory effects, even at relatively low plasma concentrations. Based on these considerations, theophylline can be regarded as a useful alternative to other anti-inflammatory drugs for the chronic treatment of mild to moderate asthma. Theophylline should be used at lower doses to achieve plasma concentrations of 5-10 mg.l-1, which will avoid the risk of side-effects. Further studies are required to evaluate the role of low-dose theophylline as an adjunct to low-dose inhaled steroids in the management of chronic asthma. It may now be appropriate to re-evaluate the role of theophylline in asthma management.

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