Background: Airway dehydration triggers exercise-induced bronchoconstriction in virtually all patients with active asthma. We are not aware of any investigations of airway dehydration in patients with naturally occurring asthma exacerbations. We wish to investigate whether airway dehydration occurs in acute asthmatic patients in the emergency department, and its functional significance.
Methods: In a pilot study on 10 asthmatic patients and 10 control subjects in the emergency department, respiratory rate was counted manually, and relative humidity of expired air was recorded using an air probe hygrometer. In parallel laboratory studies carried out over 2 consecutive days, 19 asthmatics and 10 control subjects were challenged initially with dry air, and on the second day with humidified air. FEV1 and humidity measurements were made immediately before and after the tachypnea challenges.
Results: In the emergency department, the asthmatic group was more tachypneic (p < 0.0001) and their expired air was drier (p < 0.0001) than the control group. Following a dry-air tachypnea challenge in the laboratory, which caused dehydration of the expired air in all subjects, half of the asthmatics, but none of the control subjects, demonstrated a fall of > 10% in FEV1 from baseline. This bronchoconstriction was prevented by humidifying the inspired air; tachypnea with no water loss did not affect lung function in asthmatic subjects.
Conclusions: Dehydration of the expired air is present in asthmatic patients in the emergency department. The bronchoconstriction triggered by dry-air tachypnea challenge in the laboratory can be prevented by humidifying the inspired air. Airway rehydration merits further investigation as a potential adjunct to acute treatment of asthma exacerbations.