Persistent Asthma Classifications

Asthma is classified by the severity of symptoms in order to direct the appropriate treatment. Based on the frequency and severity of attacks, along with a review of inhaler use and pulmonary function tests, a doctor can classify the disease using criteria from the Expert Panel Report 3 (EPR-3) Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma. Treatment can then be staged using one or several drugs so that the disease is neither overtreated nor undertreated.

spirometry young man asthma
 Anna Koldunova / Getty Images

The EPR-3 guidelines were issued in 2007 by the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program Coordinating Committee (NAEPPCC). A working committee was formed in 2018 to review the current scientific information and issue recommendations for the next EPR-4 guidelines.

How Asthma Classifications Are Made

According to the EPR-3 guidelines, the assessment of asthma severity is based on five specific values, some of which are objective (with clear diagnostic measures) and others of which are subjective (based on the individual's experience and perceptions).

When classifying asthma severity, the following five characteristics are assessed:

  1. Symptoms, specifically the number of times per day or week that an asthma attack occurs
  2. Nighttime awakenings, the number of times that symptoms awaken you on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis
  3. Rescue inhaler use, the number of times per day or week that you need to use a short-acting inhaler to treat acute asthma symptoms
  4. Interference with normal activity, a subjective assessment of how your symptoms are interfering with your ability to perform everyday tasks
  5. Lung function, an evaluative measure of lung capacity and lung strength using pulmonary function tests (PFTs)

Together, these values can differentiate asthma severity into one of four classifications: mild intermittent, mild persistent, moderate persistent, or severe persistent. These classifications provide the foundation from which treatment decisions are made.

Asthma is ideally classified when then the disease is first diagnosed and before treatment begins. It can then be assessed and reclassified at any stage of the disease if the treatments fail to provide the sustained control of symptoms.

Diagnostic Process

The key to the classification of asthma is an individual's lung function. To measure this, doctors will use a non-invasive test known as spirometry which can evaluate both lung capacity and lung strength.

From a classification standpoint, there are two measures in the assessment:

Any value below the predicted range (based on your age, sex, and height) are indicative of an obstructive lung disease like asthma.

The other values (symptoms, nighttime awakening, rescue inhaler use, physical impairment) can be obtained during an interview with the patient.

Also factoring into the assessment is whether oral corticosteroids (steroids) have been needed to treat severe attacks. The number to times that oral steroids are needed per year—typically in an emergency setting⁠—can alone determine if the disease is intermittent or persistent.

Monitoring Treatment Response

The assessment can also be used to monitor a person's response to treatment. Once an asthma classification is made, the assessment is repeated two to six weeks later to see if the treatment is working. If asthma control is not achieved, an adjustment to the treatment plan would be needed.

Given that some of the EPR-3 values are subjective, there is room for interpretation of the results. If in doubt about the findings, do not hesitate to seek a second opinion from a qualified pulmonologist.

Asthma Classifications

The purpose of the EPR-3 classification system is to direct the appropriate treatment, neither undertreating the disease (leading the treatment failure and the premature progression of the disease) nor overtreating it (leading to early drug tolerance and an increased risk of side effects).

Based on the assessment, asthma can be classified in one of four ways:

Mild Intermittent Asthma

Asthma is considered mild intermittent if any or all of the following are true:

  • Symptoms occur two or fewer days per week.
  • Nighttime symptoms occur two days or less per month.
  • Rescue inhalers are used two or fewer times per week (or not at all).
  • Symptoms do not limit normal activities.
  • Lung function is greater than 80% of the predicted value based on your age, sex, and height.

Mild Persistent Asthma

Asthma is considered mild persistent if any or all of the following are true:

  • Symptoms occur more than two days a week, but not every day.
  • Nighttime symptoms occur three to four times a month.
  • Rescue inhalers are used more than two times weekly, but not every day, and not more than once every day.
  • Asthma attacks mildly impair normal daily activities (enough that people may or may not notice).
  • Lung function is greater than 80% of the predicted value based on your age, sex, and height.

Moderate Persistent Asthma

Asthma is considered moderate persistent if any or all of the following are true:

  • Symptoms occur daily.
  • Nighttime symptoms more than once weekly, but not nightly.
  • Rescue inhalers are used daily.
  • Asthma symptoms moderately impair normal activities (enough that people around you notice).
  • Lung function is less than 80% of the predicted values but more than 60%.

Severe Persistent Asthma

Asthma is considered severe persistent if any or all of the following are true:

  • Symptoms occur several times daily.
  • Nighttime symptoms are frequent, often nightly.
  • Rescue inhalers are used several times daily.
  • Asthma symptoms severely impair your ability to function normally.
  • Lung function is less than 60% of the predicted value.
Classifying Asthma Severity in Adult and Children 12 and Over
  Mild Intemittent Mild Persistent Moderate Persistent Severe Persistent
Acute symptoms 2 or fewer days per week More than 2 days per week, but not daily Daily Throughout the day
Nighttime symptoms 2 or fewer days per month 3 to 4 times monthly More than once weekly, but not nightly Often 7 days per week
Rescue inhaler use Two or fewer days per week More than 2 days per week, but not daily, and not more than once daily Daily Several times daily
Interference with normal activities None Mild Moderate Severe
Lung function FEV1 normal, but with exacerbations
OR
FEV1 over 80%

FEV1/FVC normal
FEV1 over 80%

FEV1/FVC normal
FEV1 under 80% but over 60%

FEV1/FVC reduced by 5%
FEV1 under 60%

FEV1/FVC reduced by more than 5%
Risk of severe attacks Oral steroids used 0 to 1 time per year Oral steroids used 2 or more times per year Oral steroids used 2 or more times per year Oral steroids used 2 or more times per year

Classification in Younger Children

In children under 12, the only variation in the classification of asthma is the FEV1/FVC ratio. While the FEV1/FVC ratio can often be normal in adults with asthma, this is less true with younger children.

Asthma classification in children is defined in part by following FEV1/FVC ratios:

  • Mild intermittent: FEV1/FVC is over 85% of the predicted value.
  • Mild persistent: FEV1/FVC is over 80% of the predicted value.
  • Moderate persistent: FEV1/FVC is between 75% and 80% of the predicted value.
  • Severe persistent: FEV1/FVC is under 75% of the predicted value.

Treatment Approaches

The ultimate aim of asthma classification is to direct the appropriate treatment. Based on the classification, treatment can be staged according to six structure steps, ranging from step 1 through step 6. With each step, the treatments become more complicated and carry a greater risk of side effects.

There is not always a clear line between when a step should or should not be started. While mild intermittent asthma is almost always treated with rescue inhalers alone, persistent asthma often requires a judgment call to pick the right combination of drugs to control asthma symptoms.

Once a person has been diagnosed with moderate persistent asthma, treatment decisions should be overseen by an asthma specialist rather than a general practitioner.

When asthma control is achieved, a specialist is better suited to decide if or when treatments can be simplified or dosages decreased.

The drugs recommended for use in treating intermittent or persistent asthma include:

The steps and recommended treatments vary by age.

Stepwise Approach to Managing Asthma
  Step 1 Step 2 Step 3 Step 4 Step 5 Step 6
Ages 0-4
(preferred)
SABA  Low-dose ICS Medium-dose ICS Medium-dose ICS 
OR
Singulair
High-dose ICS + LABA or Singulair High-dose ICS + LABA or Singular + OCS
Ages 0-4 (alternative)   Cromolyn or Singulair        
Ages 5-11 (preferred) SABA   Low-dose ICS Low-dose ICS + LABA, nedocromil, LTRA, or theophylline
OR
Medium-dose ICS on its own

 
Medium-dose ICS + LABA
 
High-dose ICS + LABA High-dose ICS + LABA + OCS
Ages 5-11 (alternative)   Cromolyn, LTRA, nedocromil, or theophyline   Medium-dose ICS + LTRA or theophylliine High-dose ICS + theophylline or LTRA High-dose ICS + theophylline or LTRA +OCS
Ages 12 and over 
(preferred)
SABA alone Low-dose ICS Low-dose ICS + LABA
OR
Medium-dose ICS on its own
Medium-dose ICS + LABA High-dose ICS + LABA High-dose ICS + LABA + OCS
Ages 12 and over (alternative)   Cromolyn, nedocromil, LTRA, or theophyline Low-dose ICS + LTRA, theophylline, or Zyflo CR Medium-dose ICS + LTRA, theophylline, or Zyflo CR Consider adding Xolair for people with allergic asthma Consider adding Xolair for people with allergic asthma

A Word From Verywell

The EPR-3 guidelines are the ones most commonly used in the United States for the staging of asthma treatment. There are other guidelines used internationally, including those issued by the Global Initiative on Asthma (GINA). The GINA guidelines, updated annually, are created in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

While similar in their classifications of asthma, the GINA guidelines offer treatment recommendations that differ from the current EPR-3. It is believed that the upcoming EPR-4 guidelines will align more closely with GINA,

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Clinical practice guidelines. In: Expert Panel Report 3: Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma. August 200y

  2. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Expert panel report 4 (EPR-4) working group. 2018.

  3. Koterba AP, Saltoun CA. Chapter 9: Asthma classification. Allergy Asthma Proc. 2012;33 (Suppl_1):28-31. doi:10.2500/aap.2012.33.3539

  4. Padem N, Saltoun C. Classification of asthma. Allergy Asthma Proc. 2019;40(6):385-8. doi:10.2500/aap.2019.40.4253

  5. Oksel C, Haider S, Fontanella S, Frainay C, Custovic A. Classification of pediatric asthma: From phenotype discovery to clinical practice. Front Pediatr. 2018;6:258. doi:10.3389/fped.2018.00258

  6. Falk NP, Hughes SW, Rodgers BC. Medications for chronic asthma. Am Fam Physician. 2016 Sep 15;94(6):454-62.

  7. Bousquet J, Busse WW. Section 1. EPR-3 versus GINA 2008 guidelines - Asthma control and step 3 care: Highlights of the asthma summit 2009: Beyond the guidelines. World Allergy Organ J. 2010 Feb;3(2):16-22. doi:10.1097/WOX.0b013e3181cb90c3