Academics say a pill that is rarely prescribed in Britain is just as effective at controlling the long-term breathing condition as traditional inhalers.
But because it is easier to take and users feel less self-conscious about doing so, asthma sufferers were found to be far more likely to stick with the medication.
That means it could save the health service money by resulting in fewer emergency hospital admissions, even though the tablets known as LTRAs are at £300 a year more three times as expensive as inhalers.
Prof David Price from the University of Aberdeen and the University of East Anglia, who led the study, said: “We hope these findings will increase the options for healthcare professionals when prescribing for this common but disruptive disease.
“We found that adherence to treatment was vastly improved – by as much as 60 per cent – when patients were given the once-a-day LTRA tablets and patients did not have to worry about using appropriate inhaler techniques.”
Co-researcher Dr Stanley Musgrave, from Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia, added: “LTRAs are easy to use and can help patients control their asthma effectively and improve their quality of life.”
Asthma, caused by narrowing of the airways in the lungs and leading to breathlessness and wheezing, often develops in childhood and affects at least 5million Britons.
Many sufferers use a daily inhaler to take drugs to control their symptoms, as well as a separate one in case of severe attacks, and according to the health watchdog Nice the cheapest sort costs as little as £79 a year. They use steroids to reduce inflammation in the airways.
Tablets called Leukotriene Receptor Antagonists (LTRAs) have long been on the market as an alternative to inhalers but they are currently only recommended as a third or fourth option on the NHS so are rarely prescribed. A year’s worth of tablets, marketed under the name Singulair, costs £324.
However the new paper, published in the respected New England Journal of Medicine, claims that the pills are just as effective as inhalers as well as being easier to take.
The authors followed 650 patients with chronic asthma for two years, and found the tablets were just as good at managing mild symptoms while users were up to 60 per cent more likely to keep taking them than using their inhalers daily. They also improved the condition of those with moderate symptoms when used alongside an inhaler.
Dr Samantha Walker, director of research and policy at the charity Asthma UK, said: “Inhaled treatments are safe and effective for the majority of people with asthma, however this authoritative study reveals preliminary evidence that non-steroid daily tablets can provide a realistic, alternative choice of treatment for some of the 4.3 million adults with asthma in the UK.
“Asthma is different for each person and treatment options should reflect the diverse and complex needs of the individual. This study shows that for some adults with asthma a non-steroid daily tablet can be as good as inhaled steroid asthma medicines.
“Our advice to people with asthma would be to continue taking their medicines as prescribed and speak to their GP if they feel their asthma needs reviewing.”