The concept of life-threatening asthma is not new. Reviews of fatal asthma often describe retrospectively identified factors that were associated with or contributed to the patient's demise. We report 55 patients considered to have the diagnosis of potentially fatal asthma who were managed for 4.8 +/- 4.3 years per patient. The diagnostic criteria of potentially fatal asthma included at least one of the following four potentially fatal asthma events: 1) mechanical ventilation for respiratory arrest or failure, 2) acute respiratory acidosis that did not necessitate mechanical ventilation, 3) two episodes of acute pneumomediastinum or pneumothorax associated with status asthmaticus, 4) two or more hospitalizations for status asthmaticus in spite of long term oral corticosteroids. The mean age of patients with potentially fatal asthma was 39.6 +/- 19.1 (range 8.5-79.5 years). During 262 patient-years of management, one 79 year old demented patient died from disseminated cryptococcal infection. Two patients died from asthma after leaving our service, one patient having left the hospital against medical advice with arterial blood gases demonstrating acute respiratory acidosis during status asthmaticus. Fifty-two patients are alive and ambulatory. Long-term corticosteroids have been essential in 43 of 45 patients in this series currently managed by full-time faculty of the Northwestern University Allergy Service. Complicating psychosocial factors of some patients with potentially fatal asthma include schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, denial of disease, adolescent non-compliance, and parental interference with essential medications for children. We believe that the diagnosis of potentially fatal asthma should be made following occurrence of major asthma events that place the patient at high risk for a death from asthma.
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