Prescribing heartburn medication which is a longstanding practice to help asthma patients is "ineffective and unnecessarily expensive," according to a study released Wednesday.
For nearly two decades, doctors have prescribed heartburn medication to patients with severe asthma symptoms such as sneezing, coughing and breathlessness, believing the symptoms were caused in part by acid reflux.
"The longstanding practice of prescribing heartburn medication is ineffective and unnecessarily expensive for asthma patients who don't exhibit symptoms associated with acid reflux, such as heartburn or stomach pain," the study's researchers said in a statement.
The study, conducted by the American Lung Association's Asthma Clinical Research Centers at 20 sites across the United States, is the most extensive to date on the effectiveness of heartburn medication to treat asthma symptoms.
"We should be trying these medications, but if the patient doesn't get any better, we should stop the medications," said Lewis Smith, a Northwestern University professor of medicine who was the lead author of the Illinois portion of the study.
Over 24 weeks, researchers kept record of asthma symptoms for 412 patients who were randomly given either 80 milligrams of Nexium (esomeprazole) -- one of the most commonly prescribed stomach ulcer or acid reflux medications -- or a placebo.
The participants had poorly controlled asthma but either no or very mild acid reflux symptoms prior to the study, published in Thursday's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Patients who took Nexium during the trial had as many asthma episodes as those who took a placebo, and the groups exhibited no differences in their lung function or other asthma symptoms.
The results, the researchers concluded, demonstrate that Nexium is not more effective than a placebo to treat asthma.
"Despite using four times the typical dose of the heartburn medication, we achieved no improvement in asthma symptoms, control or exacerbation rates," said Mario Castro, a Washington University pulmonary specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital who led the study in St. Louis, Missouri.
Asthma patients spend up to 10 million dollars on prescription heartburn medication each year in hopes to help wheezing, coughing and breathlessness attacks, the researchers noted.
The American Lung Association recommends that asthma sufferers with gastric reflux symptoms occurring at least twice weekly take prescription heartburn medication to control heartburn but not asthma symptoms.
Nearly 23 million people in the United States have asthma. Although asthma symptoms can be controlled, between 4,000 and 5,000 people die from the disease each year.