Researchers in the UK say that antifungal drugs could be the key to improving the lives of thousands of asthmatics.
Severe asthma attacks have more often than not been blamed on air pollutants such as dust mites, pollen or animal hair, but now researchers at the University of Manchester have discovered that the condition can be triggered by an allergic reaction to types of fungi, such as mould, damp and dead leaves.
They are presently testing a drug which could cut sufferers' reliance on steroids and prevent the sort of serious attacks that lead to hospital treatment or even death.
It is likely that the antifungal drug could help about 400,000 British adults who suffer from severe asthma and are shown to be allergic to at least one type of airborne fungus.
It is estimated that in Britain alone there are around five million asthmatics but many are mild or triggered by something other than fungi.
Treatment for children with asthma is different because they may grow out of allergies.
Of grave concern is that 1,000 people in Britain die from asthma every year.
The scientists, based at Manchester's Wythenshawe Hospital, just focused on asthma which was triggered by tiny spores of common airborne fungi, which outnumber pollen grains by almost 1,000 to one and are invisible to the naked eye.
Although most people do not have a reaction to them, when severe asthmatics inhale the spores their airways are thought to narrow, making it harder for them to breathe.
Initial trials showed that the use of anti-fungal drugs was found to reduce the incidence of hospitalisation by 75 per cent.
This has led the scientists to embark on a trial of the drug, itraconazole, with 100 asthmatics.
Although the drug will not provide a cure for all asthmatics it could lessen attacks and therefore save thousands of lives over time.
Volunteers for the clinical trial will be screened and, if their test results show an allergy to one or more fungi, they will be given itraconazole capsules or a placebo for eight months.
Dr Robert Niven, the lead trial investigator, from the North West Lung Centre at Wythenshawe Hospital, says there are few options for patients with severe asthma other than prescribing more steroids, and those can have side effects.
He says antifungal treatment for those sensitised to fungi may be a useful additional strategy to improve the breathing and overall health of these patients.
Even though the treatment experience with itraconazole was limited he says it suggests fewer admissions to hospital for asthma.