Complementary/Alternative Medicine in the Treatment of Asthma

Donna Melissa Graham, MD and Michael S Blaiss, MD

Objective: This review will familiarize clinical allergists/immunologists with the common forms of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM) that are being used frequently by their patients. It reviews reasons that patients seek alternative health care therapies and the most common illnesses that are treated with this form of medicine. Cultural differences in CAM are also reviewed. The article focuses on specific therapies used to treat asthma and reviews the efficacy of these therapies based on the available scientific literature. The reader will also learn about views of other physicians on CAM and how this topic is being addressed in US medical schools.

Data Sources: Computer-assisted MEDLINE searches for articles on “complementary/alternative medicine” or “herbal therapy” and “asthma” or “atopy.”

Study selection: Pertinent abstracts and articles in the above areas were selected. Articles selected for detailed review included review articles of the subjects along with randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled studies in animals and humans.

Results: Complementary/alternative medicine is commonly used by patients with chronic conditions including asthma. One-third of the US population has tried CAM. The literature supporting the efficacy of these therapies is lacking. Some reports elucidate the mechanism of action of certain herbal therapies that could possibly be helpful in the treatment of allergic diseases. There are, however, few well-controlled studies that support the efficacy of CAM in the treatment and clinical improvement of human subjects with asthma or atopic disorders.

Conclusion: Available scientific evidence does not support a role for CAM in the treatment of asthma. The studies in the literature often have significant design flaws that weaken the conclusions such as insufficient numbers of patients, lack of proper controls, and inadequate blinding. Further studies are needed to prove or disprove the efficacy of CAM. Physicians often find CAM intimidating because they are unaware of the clinical evidence and feel uncomfortable advising their patients on its efficacy. There is definitely a need for more education among physicians in this area. It is also important that physicians inquire and discuss the use of CAM with their patients since the majority of patients are using some form of CAM.

Funding/Support: Supported by an unrestricted grant from AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals

Annals of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology © December 2000;85:438-449