Beware Risk of Sedatives for Respiratory Patients ​​​​​​​

Both asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can be challenging to diagnose, and medication-driven episodes of sedation or hypoventilation are often overlooked as causes of acute exacerbations in these conditions, according to a letter published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine.

“We are concerned about the number of patients we have seen with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) exacerbations who have been prescribed sedative medications,” write Christos V. Chalitsios, PhD, of the University of Nottingham, England, and colleagues.

The authors note that exacerbations are the main complications of both asthma and COPD, and stress the importance of identifying causes and preventive strategies.

Sedatives such as opioids have been shown to depress respiratory drive, reduce muscle tone, and increase the risk of pneumonia, they write. The authors also propose that the risk of sedative-induced aspiration or hypoventilation would be associated with medications including pregabalin, gabapentin, and amitriptyline.

Other mechanisms may be involved in the association between sedatives and exacerbations in asthma and COPD. For example, sedative medications can suppress coughing, which may promote airway mucous compaction and possible infection, the authors write.

Most research involving prevention of asthma and COPD exacerbations has not addressed the potential impact of sedatives taken for reasons outside of obstructive lung disease, the authors say.

“Although the risk of sedation and hypoventilation events are known to be increased by opioids and antipsychotic drugs, there has not been a systematic assessment of commonly prescribed medications with potential respiratory side-effects, including gabapentin, amitriptyline, and pregabalin,” they write.

Polypharmacy is increasingly common and results in many patients with asthma or COPD presenting for treatment of acute exacerbations while on a combination of gabapentin, pregabalin, amitriptyline, and opioids, the authors note; “however, there is little data or disease-specific guidance on how best to manage this problem, which often starts with a prescription in primary care,” they write. Simply stopping sedatives is not an option for many patients given the addictive nature of these drugs and the unlikely resolution of the condition for which the drugs were prescribed, the authors say. However, “cautious dose reduction” of sedatives is possible once patients understand the reason, they add.

Clinicians may be able to suggest reduced doses and alternative treatments to patients with asthma and COPD while highlighting the risk of respiratory depression and polypharmacy; “potentially reducing the number of exacerbations of obstructive lung disease,” the authors conclude.

The study received no outside funding. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Lancet Respir Med. Published online February 15, 2023. Full text

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