Adverse Effects of β-Agonists

Are They Clinically Relevant?


Inhaled β2-adrenoceptor agonists (β2-agonists) are the most commonly used asthma medications in many Western countries. Minor adverse effects such as palpitations, tremor, headache and metabolic effects are predictable and dose related. Time series studies suggested an association between the relatively nonselective β-agonist fenoterol and asthma deaths. Three case-control studies confirmed that among patients prescribed fenoterol, the risk of death was significantly elevated even after controlling for the severity of asthma. The Saskatchewan study not only found an increased risk of death among patients dispensed fenoterol, but also suggested this might be a class effect of β2-agonists. However, in subsequent studies, the long-acting β2-agonist salmeterol was not associated with increased asthma mortality. In a case-control study blood albuterol (salbutamol) concentrations were found to be 2.5 times higher among patients who died of asthma compared with controls. It is speculated that such toxic concentrations could cause tachyarrhythmias under conditions of hypoxia and hypokalemia.

The risk of asthma exacerbations and near-fatal attacks may also be increased among patients dispensed fenoterol, but this association may be largely due to confounding by severity. Although salmeterol does not appear to increase the risk of near-fatal attacks, there is a consistent association with the use of nebulized β2-agonists. Nebulized and oral β2-agonists are also associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular death, ischemic heart disease and cardiac failure. Caution should be exercised when first prescribing a β-agonist for patients with cardiovascular disease.

A potential mechanism for adverse effects with regular use of β2-agonists is tachyphylaxis. Tachyphylaxis to the bronchodilator effects of long-acting β2-agonists can occur, but has been consistently demonstrated only for formoterol (eformoterol) a full agonist, rather than salmeterol, a partial agonist. Tachyphylaxis to protection against induced bronchospasm occurs with both full and partial β2-agonists, and probably within a matter of days at most. Underlying airway responsiveness to directly acting bronchoconstricting agents is not increased when the bronchodilator effect of the regular β2-agonist has been allowed to wear off, although there may be an increase in responsiveness to indirectly acting agents. While there has been speculation that underlying airway inflammation in asthma may be made worse by regular use of short-acting β2-agonists, in contradistinction, a number of studies have shown that long-acting β2-agonists have positive anti-inflammatory effects.

An Australian Cochrane Airways Group systematic review of the randomized, controlled trials of short-acting β-agonists found only minimal and clinically unimportant differences between regular use and use as needed. Regular short-acting treatment was better than placebo. However, a subsequent systematic review has found that regular use of long-acting β-agonists had significant advantages over regular use of short-acting β-agonists. More studies and data are needed on the regular use of β2-agonists in patients not taking inhaled corticosteroids, and in potentially vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with particular genotypes for the β-receptor, who might be more prone to adverse effects.

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The Victorian Asthma Mortality Study was supported by the National Health & Medical Research Council of Australia. The Australian Airways Network is supported by a grant from the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care. We thank Neil Pearce for permission to reproduce Fig1

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Correspondence to Dr Michael J. Abramson.

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Abramson, M.J., Walters, J. & Walters, E.H. Adverse Effects of β-Agonists. Am J Respir Med 2, 287–297 (2003).

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  • Asthma
  • Salmeterol
  • Formoterol
  • Albuterol
  • Fenoterol