BACKGROUND: Acute bronchiolitis is the most common cause of hospitalisation in infancy. Supportive care and oxygen are the cornerstones of management.
A Cochrane review concluded that the use of nebulised 3% hypertonic saline (HS) may significantly reduce the duration of hospitalisation.
OBJECTIVE: To test the hypothesis that HS reduces the time to when infants were assessed as being fit for discharge, defined as in air with saturations of > 92% for 6 hours, by 25%.
DESIGN: Parallel-group, pragmatic randomised controlled trial, cost-utility analysis and systematic review.
SETTING: Ten UK hospitals.
PARTICIPANTS: Infants with acute bronchiolitis requiring oxygen therapy were allocated within 4 hours of admission.
INTERVENTIONS: Supportive care with oxygen as required, minimal handling and fluid administration as appropriate to the severity of the disease, 3% nebulised HS every +/- 6 hours.
MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: The trial primary outcome was time until the infant met objective discharge criteria. Secondary end points included time to discharge and adverse events. The costs analysed related to length of stay (LoS), readmissions, nebulised saline and other NHS resource use. Quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs) were estimated using an existing utility decrement derived for hospitalisation in children, together with the time spent in hospital in the trial.
DATA SOURCES: We searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials and other databases from inception or from 2010 onwards, searched ClinicalTrials.gov and other registries and hand-searched Chest, Paediatrics and Journal of Paediatrics to January 2015.
REVIEW METHODS: We included randomised/quasi-randomised trials which compared HS versus saline (+/- adjunct treatment) or no treatment. We used a fixed-effects model to combine mean differences for LoS and assessed statistical heterogeneity using the I (2) statistic.
RESULTS: The trial randomised 158 infants to HS (n = 141 analysed) and 159 to standard care (n = 149 analysed). There was no difference between the two arms in the time to being declared fit for discharge [median 76.6 vs. 75.9 hours, hazard ratio (HR) 0.95, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.75 to 1.20] or to actual discharge (median 88.5 vs. 88.7 hours, HR 0.97, 95% CI 0.76 to 1.23). There was no difference in adverse events. One infant developed bradycardia with desaturation associated with HS. Mean hospital costs were pound2595 and pound2727 for the control and intervention groups, respectively (p = 0.657). Incremental QALYs were 0.0000175 (p = 0.757). An incremental cost-effectiveness ratio of pound7.6M per QALY gained was not appreciably altered by sensitivity analyses. The systematic review comprised 15 trials (n = 1922) including our own.
HS reduced the mean LoS by -0.36 days (95% CI -0.50 to -0.22 days). High levels of heterogeneity (I (2) = 78%) indicate that the result should be treated cautiously.
CONCLUSIONS: In this trial, HS had no clinical benefit on LoS or readiness for discharge and was not a cost-effective treatment for acute bronchiolitis. Claims that HS achieves small reductions in LoS must be treated with scepticism.
FUTURE WORK: Well-powered randomised controlled trials of high-flow oxygen are needed.
STUDY REGISTRATION: This study is registered as NCT01469845 and CRD42014007569.
FUNDING DETAILS: This project was funded by the NIHR Health Technology Assessment (HTA) programme and will be published in full in Health Technology Assessment; Vol. 19, No. 66. See the HTA programme website for further project information.