Q: I heard that there's an electrical device that can treat asthma. How does it work, and is it safe?

A: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a device called the Alair Bronchial Thermoplasty System for use in adults with severe, persistent asthma that is not well controlled with long-acting beta-agonist drugs or inhaled corticosteroids.

The device consists of a catheter with an electrode tip that is introduced into the lung through a bronchoscope. The electrode delivers a form of thermal energy directly to the airways. The heat destroys some of the lining of the breathing tubes, which makes it easier to breathe. The procedure is performed on an outpatient basis.

The FDA's approval was based, in part, on a one-year study involving 297 people with persistent asthma, which showed that treatment with the device improved quality of life and resulted in a 32 percent decline in asthma attacks and an 84 percent reduction in emergency-room visits.

The FDA is requiring the manufacturer to conduct a five-year follow-up study to determine the device's long-term safety and effectiveness.

Possible side effects include:

  • asthma attacks during the course of treatment
  • wheezing
  • chest tightness or pain
  • partially collapsed lung
  • coughing up blood
  • anxiety
  • headaches
  • nausea

If you have severe, persistent, poorly controlled asthma, talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of this procedure.

Publication Review By: Peter B. Terry, M.D., M.A.

Published: 04 Aug 2011

Last Modified: 17 Oct 2014