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New Treatment Helps People with Severe Asthma Breathe Easier

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Across the country, about 24 million people suffer from asthma. Every year, about 3,400 die because of it.

Avoiding allergens and using inhaled medications are enough to keep asthma under control in most patients. But for the minority with severe persistent asthma, medication and lifestyle changes are not enough. Frequent hospital trips are almost inevitable, and powerful steroids like prednisone — which can cause thinning bones, cataracts, depression and other debilitating side effects — become a necessity.

But now Sarasota Memorial doctors have a new weapon in the battle against severe asthma – a procedure called bronchial thermoplasty, the first non-drug therapy approved by the Food and Drug Administration for patients with severe asthma.

“It’s not a cure, but for some, it can be life changing,” said Joseph Seaman, MD, a Critical Care Pulmonologist at Sarasota Memorial who has seen significant improvements in patients he has treated. 

During the procedure, a doctor guides a bronchoscope into a patient’s airways. There, it heats the lungs to 149 degrees Fahrenheit — cooler than a cup of coffee, but warm enough to shrink the smooth muscle in the airways, which swells during an asthma attack and restricts breathing. 

Treatment takes place during three separate bronchoscopy procedures, each staged three weeks apart. Each time, different sections of the lungs are treated, to minimize irritation of the airways. Side effects are normally minimal – some patients report temporary coughing, mucus and other respiratory symptoms. After the procedure, the airways no longer are so prone to constricting. 

Bronchial thermoplasty was approved by the FDA two years ago; five-year studies of asthma patients treated with brochial thermoplasty compared with a control group found asthma attacks drop by a third, their emergency room visits fall by 84 percent, and the number of days they lost from work and school drop by 66 percent.

Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation, Inc. provided a grant for the technology, which for now can only be used to treat severe asthmatics, who — unlike a vast majority of asthma patients — cannot keep flare-ups at bay with standard medications. Medicare and most insurance companies cover the procedure, but pre-authorization is typically required. 

For more information, call Sarasota Memorial HealthLine at (941) 917-7777.

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