INTRODUCTION: Historically, asthma was considered a disease predominantly of the large airways, but gradually small airways have been recognized as the major site of airflow obstruction. Small airway dysfunction (SAD) significantly contributes to the pathophysiology of asthma and it is present across all asthma severities. Promising pre-clinical findings documented enhanced beneficial effects of combination therapies on small airways compared to monocomponents, thus it was questioned whether this could translate into further clinical implications from bench-to-bedside. The aim of this review was to systematically assess the state of the art of small airway involvement in asthma, especially in response to different pharmacological treatments acting on the respiratory system.EVIDENCE ACQUISITION: A comprehensive literature search was performed in MEDLINE for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) characterizing the impact on small airways of different pharmacological treatments acting on the respiratory system. The results were extracted and reported via qualitative synthesis.EVIDENCE SYNTHESIS: Overall, 63 studies were identified from the literature search, whereas 23 RCTs met the inclusion criteria. Evidence confirms that both drug particle size and the type of inhalation devices represent two of the most important variables for an effective peripheral lung distribution.CONCLUSIONS: Despite the numerous methodological tools to detect SAD, there is still no gold standard diagnostic method to assess small airways, especially in severe asthma. Further research should be directed to improve primary and secondary prevention strategies by supporting the combined approach of different non-invasive techniques for an early detection of peripheral abnormalities and optimization of asthma therapy.
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