Sublingual immunotherapy for asthma

Review question

We assessed the evidence on the use of sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) for people with asthma compared with placebo or with normal treatment for asthma. We focused on whether SLIT is a good treatment for asthma and whether it is safe.

Background

Asthma is a long-term condition that causes breathing problems and cough, which sometimes develop into asthma attacks. This may lead to the need for patients to take extra medication, visit a clinic or a hospital for treatment or even be admitted to the hospital. Approximately 300 million people worldwide have asthma, and allergies may be an important trigger of asthma symptoms in about half of these people (e.g. house dust mites, pollen). The aim of SLIT is to reduce the body's allergic response that causes asthma symptoms; this is done by giving repeated doses of what the person is allergic to in liquid or tablet form under the tongue. Currently, it is not clear whether SLIT is more helpful or safer for people with asthma, when compared with placebo or just continuation of normal asthma treatments.

Study characteristics

We included 52 studies involving 5077 people. These studies lasted between one day and three years. Most of the people included in the studies had mild asthma. Both males and females were included, and about half of the studies included only children.

Most studies involved people with house dust mites or pollen allergy. The evidence presented here is current to 25 March 2015.

Key results

Very few studies recorded the number of people who had asthma attacks leading to a hospital visit or the need for additional medication, so we do not know if SLIT reduces asthma attacks, possibly because most of the patients included in these studies had mild asthma. A few studies reported quality of life, but they used different scales, so we could not really tell if SLIT had a positive effect. Some studies reported that people taking SLIT had fewer asthma symptoms and had a reduced need for asthma medication compared with controls, but studies measured this in different ways, some of which may not be accurate.

People receiving SLIT were no more or less likely to experience serious unwanted side effects, but these were generally very rare. We are not confident that this finding would apply to people with more severe asthma. People receiving SLIT were more likely to experience any unwanted side effect, but many of these were mild.

Guidelines for asthma treatment suggest that SLIT should be used only for people with asthma that is difficult to control with standard treatments. However, many of the studies in this review included people with mild asthma, so trials looking at the effects of SLIT for people with more severe asthma are needed. It would be helpful if these studies used standard scales to report their findings, so that results can be combined in the future.

Quality of the evidence

The evidence presented in this review is generally of moderate or low quality, and very few studies have reported outcomes that are important to people with asthma, such as asthma attacks and quality of life. Most studies did not clearly explain how investigators decided which people would receive SLIT and which individuals would receive placebo or normal care, and in some studies, both participants and trial organisers knew which treatment they were getting. This may have affected the results.

Authors' conclusions: 

Lack of data for important outcomes such as exacerbations and quality of life and use of different unvalidated symptom and medication scores have limited our ability to draw a clinically useful conclusion. Further research using validated scales and important outcomes for patients and decision makers is needed so that SLIT can be properly assessed as clinical treatment for asthma. Very few serious adverse events have been reported, but most studies have included patients with intermittent or mild asthma, so we cannot comment on the safety of SLIT for those with moderate or severe asthma. SLIT is associated with increased risk of all adverse events.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Asthma is a common long-term respiratory disease affecting approximately 300 million people worldwide. Approximately half of people with asthma have an important allergic component to their disease, which may provide an opportunity for targeted treatment. Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) aims to reduce asthma symptoms by delivering increasing doses of an allergen (e.g. house dust mite, pollen extract) under the tongue to induce immune tolerance. However, it is not clear whether the sublingual delivery route is safe and effective in asthma.

Objectives: 

To assess the efficacy and safety of sublingual immunotherapy compared with placebo or standard care for adults and children with asthma.

Search strategy: 

We identified trials from the Cochrane Airways Group Specialised Register (CAGR), ClinicalTrials.gov (www.ClinicalTrials.gov), the World Health Organization (WHO) trials portal (www.who.int/ictrp/en/) and reference lists of all primary studies and review articles. The search is up to date as of 25 March 2015.

Selection criteria: 

We included parallel randomised controlled trials (RCTs), irrespective of blinding or duration, that evaluated sublingual immunotherapy versus placebo or as an add-on to standard asthma management. We included both adults and children with asthma of any severity and with any allergen-sensitisation pattern. We included studies that recruited participants with asthma, rhinitis, or both, providing at least 80% of trial participants had a diagnosis of asthma.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently screened the search results for included trials, extracted numerical data and assessed risk of bias, all of which were cross-checked for accuracy. We resolved disagreements by discussion.

We analysed dichotomous data as odds ratios (ORs) or risk differences (RDs) using study participants as the unit of analysis; we analysed continuous data as mean differences (MDs) or standardised mean differences (SMDs) using random-effects models. We rated all outcomes using GRADE (Grades of Recommendation, Assessment, Development and Evaluation) and presented results in the 'Summary of findings' table.

Main results: 

Fifty-two studies met our inclusion criteria, randomly assigning 5077 participants to comparisons of interest. Most studies were double-blind and placebo-controlled, but studies varied in duration from one day to three years. Most participants had mild or intermittent asthma, often with co-morbid allergic rhinitis. Eighteen studies recruited only adults, 25 recruited only children and several recruited both or did not specify (n = 9).

With the exception of adverse events, reporting of outcomes of interest to this review was infrequent, and selective reporting may have had a serious effect on the completeness of the evidence. Allocation procedures generally were not well described, about a quarter of the studies were at high risk of bias for performance or detection bias or both and participant attrition was high or unknown in around half of the studies.

One short study reported exacerbations requiring a hospital visit and observed no adverse events. Five studies reported quality of life, but the data were not suitable for meta-analysis. Serious adverse events were infrequent, and analysis using risk differences suggests that no more than 1 in 100 are likely to suffer a serious adverse event as a result of treatment with SLIT (RD 0.0012, 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.0077 to 0.0102; participants = 2560; studies = 22; moderate-quality evidence).

Within secondary outcomes, wide but varied reporting of largely unvalidated asthma symptom and medication scores precluded meaningful meta-analysis; a general trend suggested SLIT benefit over placebo, but variation in scales meant that results were difficult to interpret.

Changes in inhaled corticosteroid use in micrograms per day (MD 35.10 mcg/d, 95% CI -50.21 to 120.42; low-quality evidence), exacerbations requiring oral steroids (studies = 2; no events) and bronchial provocation (SMD 0.69, 95% CI -0.04 to 1.43; very low-quality evidence) were not often reported. This led to many imprecise estimates with wide confidence intervals that included the possibility of both benefit and harm from SLIT.

More people taking SLIT had adverse events of any kind compared with control (OR 1.70, 95% CI 1.21 to 2.38; low-quality evidence; participants = 1755; studies = 19), but events were usually reported to be transient and mild.

Lack of data prevented most of the planned subgroup and sensitivity analyses.

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