by Dr. Alan Inglis

I've met plenty of patients who have children or grandchildren taking steroid inhalers. They all had pretty much the same reaction when their doctors first prescribed this aggressive medication for their loved ones.

You know the reaction… your head kind of cocks to the side and your eyes narrow as you wonder, "Is this really safe?" Of course, most patients are afraid to say anything – and I understand not wanting to take any chances when it comes to a child's ability to breathe.

But trust your instincts. These inhalers can be incredibly unsafe, and research is showing that they're not always very effective.

A recent study from the University of Leicester in England reexamined the protocol at many hospitals, where children who are admitted with sudden wheezing attacks often are given steroid inhalers.

The researchers compared preschoolers who were given prednisolone with those given a placebo. There was no significant difference in the comparative length of hospital stays for 687 kids ranging in age from 10 months to five years. There was no real difference in symptom relief, either.

Another recent study, this one from Canada, looked at the benefits of using fluticasone as a preventive. Researchers concluded that the possible stunted growth from the steroid was more dangerous than any potential gains the drug provided for soothing wheezing.

You've heard me say before that the hardest thing for a doctor to do is nothing. I understand that the wheezing sound an asthmatic child makes is frightening, and could lead a doctor to prescribe an aggressive medication. But before you let your children or grandchildren take a medication that lists everything from coughing up blood to psychosis as its side effects, you need to ask some tough questions about whether it's going to do any good.

And, if we're honest, very often the answer will be no.