Viruses as precipitants of asthma symptoms. II. Physiology and mechanisms

P. G. Bardin, S. L. Johnston, P. K. Pattemore

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109 Citations (Scopus)


The upper and lower airways have complimentary roles in the ultimate object of supplying the body with oxygen whilst removing waste products of metabolism. Pathology in one area may trigger a response in another, the physiology of which, in the case of virus-induced asthma exacerbations remains poorly characterized. Viral infection of the upper airways by common cold viruses frequently triggers a response in the lower airways leading to prolonged morbidity, especially in subjects with significant pre-existing airway disease. The induction or amplification of BHR may be an important mechanism whereby asthmatic symptoms are produced although the cellular and tissue events or reflex mechanisms activated by viral illnesses and underlying BHR changes are poorly defined and may be dependent on the type and the severity of infection. Children and asthmatics tend to develop frequent colds setting in motion a sequence of events culminating in airway obstruction and symptoms of wheezing, coughing and chest tightness. This may reflect independent inflammatory changes caused by a simply additive effect of viral damage to the mucosa superimposed upon pre-existing allergic inflammation (Fig. 1). Few if any symptoms will develop in normal subjects with a mild cold whereas significant symptoms may ensure if the cold is severe and induces marked lower airway swelling, secretions and smooth muscle contraction; pathology to which children who have small calibre airways may be particularly susceptible. In asthmatics even a mild cold frequently induces exacerbation of symptoms, while serious life-threatening asthma attacks may occur associated with a severe cold. Some studies have suggested that this effect is not only additive but also synergistic and brought about by release of the mediators already present in increased quantities, the induction of IgE synthesis, or by the potentiation of neural and epithelial damage. The combined effect of both asthma and viruses may thus be amplified and result in a sustained and refractory period of airway obstruction, severe symptoms and unstable asthma. As most hospital admissions for asthma occur over the winter months and soon after the start of the school terms [115], spread of viruses through the community to susceptible individuals may be the single most important cause of sustained exacerbations of asthma. Definition of the pathological and physiological mechanisms involved will lead to better understanding and may thus provide a basis for prevention and the development of effective forms of treatment for virus-induced asthma.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)809-822
Number of pages14
JournalClinical and Experimental Allergy
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1992
Externally publishedYes

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