Asthma Management Handbook

Mental illness and asthma


In patients with moderate-to-severe asthma or asthma that is difficult to control, screen for depression, panic disorder and anxiety disorder, and offer comprehensive assessment, treatment or referral as appropriate.

How this recommendation was developed


Based on clinical experience and expert opinion (informed by evidence, where available), with particular reference to the following source(s):

  • Alvarez and Fitzgerald, 20071
  • Boulet, 20092
  • Lavoie et al. 20113
  • Parry et al. 20124
  • Theoharides et al. 20125
  • Weinberger and Abu-Hasan, 20076

Consider hyperventilation as an alternative or coexisting diagnosis when investigating asthma-like symptoms.

How this recommendation was developed


Based on clinical experience and expert opinion (informed by evidence, where available), with particular reference to the following source(s):

  • Weinberger and Abu-Hasan, 20076

Consider potential effects of oral corticosteroids on mental health when prescribing, monitoring treatment response or when assessing adherence during flare-ups.

How this recommendation was developed


Based on clinical experience and expert opinion (informed by evidence, where available).

More information

Prevalence of mental illness among people with asthma

Epidemiological studies show that anxiety, depression and panic disorders are more common among people with asthma than in the general population:2, 7

  • A large international population study found that, compared with those without asthma, people with asthma were approximately 1.6 times more likely to have a depressive disorder, approximately 1.5 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder, and approximately 1.7 times more likely to have an alcohol use disorder.8
  • Population studies have shown a higher prevalence of major depressive episodes among adolescents with asthma than adolescents without asthma.9
  • Depression and anxiety disorders are common among people with severe asthma and may be either a consequence of, or a contributor to asthma.2 Data from a prospective birth cohort suggest that there is a positive correlation between the risk of mental health problems and asthma severity in children and adolescents.10

Population studies also suggest higher rates of behavioural problems in children with asthma than the general population.11 Several studies have shown an association between asthma and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents.12

Effects of mental illness on asthma

Psychological factors may trigger asthma symptoms and affect patients’ asthma symptom perception, but also may influence medication compliance.2

Anxiety, depression and personality disorders have been thought to be risk factors for near-fatal asthma, but the association is unclear.1 Psychological factors may trigger asthma symptoms.2 High levels of asthma-related fear and panic can exacerbate asthma symptoms.4 However, anxiety and hyperventilation attacks can also be mistaken for asthma.6

Data from a cohort study of patients with asthma attending a specialist asthma clinic suggest that comorbid generalised anxiety disorder is associated with worse asthma morbidity (poorer overall asthma control, increased bronchodilator use, and worse asthma quality of life) than patients with asthma overall.3 Several studies have reported an association between stress (socioeconomic status, interpersonal conflicts, emotional distress, terrorism) and asthma flare-ups.5 The mechanism is not yet understood, but may involve circulating adrenaline levels, altered sensitivity to corticosteroids, or mast cell activation.5

Psychological factors may influence adherence to the treatment regimen.2 The experience of euphoria or dysphoria during oral corticosteroid therapy13 may influence a person’s adherence to their written asthma action plan and could lead to delays in seeking medical care during flare-ups.

Hyperventilation and asthma

Attacks of hyperventilation can be confused with asthma symptoms in people with asthma and in those without asthma.6 Some patients with asthma who experience hyperventilation attacks cannot readily distinguish the sensation of dyspnoea associated with hyperventilation from that associated with their asthma.6

Screening for depression

There is a range of validated screening tools that can be used to identify symptoms of mental illness, including depression and anxiety. For adults, asking two simple screening questions in primary care can help identify those who need further investigation for depression:14

Over the past 2 weeks, have you felt down, depressed or hopeless?

Over the past 2 weeks, have you felt little interest or pleasure in doing things?

A list of screening and assessment tools appropriate for adolescents and young adults is included in beyondblue’s Clinical practice guidelines: Depression in adolescents and young adults (2010).15

Effects of mental health treatments on asthma

Few randomised controlled clinical trials have investigated whether specific treatments for depression or anxiety in people with asthma can improve symptom control or overall function:7 In one placebo-controlled antidepressant trial, improvement in depression was associated with improvement in asthma control, irrespective of treatment received.16

Other studies have reported psychosocial benefits with various interventions:

  • In highly anxious patients with asthma, a brief cognitive behavioural intervention may reduce asthma-specific fear.4
  • Asthma self-management education and asthma monitoring (either written information and frequent follow-up, or more intensive coaching) has been associated with improvement in quality of life, particularly among patients with depressive symptoms.17
  • Physical activity (aerobic training) has been associated with improvement in anxiety and depression in people with asthma.18
Systemic corticosteroids: psychiatric effects

Systemic corticosteroids can have a range of psychological effects. Large doses of prednisone or prednisolone can cause mood and behavioural changes, including nervousness, euphoria or mood swings, psychotic episodes including manic or depressive states, paranoid states and acute toxic psychoses.13 These adverse effects can occur in people without a previous history of psychiatric illness.13

Systemic corticosteroid treatment has been associated with elevated mood and reduction in depression among patients with asthma.1920 With long-term prednisone or prednisolone therapy, initial mood changes appear to stabilise over time.21

Montelukast for adults and adolescents: psychiatric effects

Post-marketing surveillance reports led to concerns about a possible association between leukotriene receptor antagonist use and suicide risk.22 A recent case-control study reported a statistically significant association between the use of leukotriene receptor antagonists and suicide attempts in people aged 19–24 years. However, this association was no longer statistically significant after adjusting for potential confounding factors, including previous exposure to other asthma medicines and previous exposure to other medicines associated with suicide.22

Last reviewed version 2.0

Montelukast for children: behavioural and/or neuropsychiatric adverse effects

Montelukast is generally very well tolerated. Behavioural and psychiatric adverse effects were rare in clinical trials.23, 24 However, post-marketing surveillance reports have identified behavioural and/or neuropsychiatric adverse effects associated with montelukast use in some children.25

Behavioural treatment-associated effects are difficult to assess in young children. No factors have been identified to predict which children are at risk.

Reported adverse events include nightmares, sleep disturbance, anxiety, irritability, aggression and depression.25, 262829

Suicidal ideation has been reported in adolescents and adults taking montelukast.29 A nested case-control study concluded that children with asthma aged 5–18 years taking leukotriene receptor antagonists were not at increased risk of suicide attempts.22

Reported adverse effects are usually mild.28 The majority occur within 7–14 days of starting montelukast,2528 but some may appear after several months.29

Behavioural and/or neuropsychiatric adverse effects typically disappear within 4 days of stopping montelukast treatment.28 There is no evidence of long term effects.

The TGA recommends that clinicians treating children with montelukast should educate caregivers about these potential adverse effects and should consider providing them with the CMI. Advise them to seek medical advice if they have any concerns.

Last reviewed version 2.0

Psychological interventions for asthma

Various psychological interventions have been evaluated for patients with asthma who do not have a diagnosis of mental illness.

A systematic review30 of psychological interventions for adults with asthma found that:

  • relaxation therapy reduced the use of relievers
  • cognitive behavioural therapy improved asthma-related quality of life
  • bio-feedback therapy may improve peak expiratory flow rate.

A systematic review assessing whether psycho-educational interventions improve health and self-management outcomes in adults with severe or difficult asthma found that positive effects observed were mainly short term.31 However, studies were generally poor quality.31



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