Drug Safety

, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp 259–283 | Cite as

The β2-Agonist Controversy

Observations, Explanations and Relationship to Asthma Epidemiology
  • Malcolm R. Sears
  • D. Robin Taylor
Review Articles Pharmacoepidemiology


Links between frequent use of inhaled β2-agonists and morbidity and mortality from asthma appear probable. Two mortality epidemics followed the marketing of potent inhaled adrenergic agents. Case-control studies in New Zealand linked mortality with prescription of fenoterol, especially in severe asthma. A Saskatchewan case-control study confirmed an association of mortality with fenoterol, and also with frequent use of salbutamol (albuterol). Cardiac effects of β2-agonists do not cause mortality, but frequent use of these agents may increase the chronic severity of asthma, hence increasing the number of asthmatic patients at risk of death in an acute attack. Frequent use of β2-agonists may reduce lung function, increasing airway responsiveness, and impair control of asthma, despite use of inhaled corticosteroids. Mechanisms for this effect may include tachyphylaxis to nonbronchodilator effects, increased responsiveness to allergen, interaction with corticosteroid receptors, altered mucociliary function, differential effects of enantiomers, and masking of symptoms by β2-agonist use. The withdrawal of fenoterol from New Zealand in 1990 was associated with a substantial decline in morbidity and mortality.

Overall, the evidence suggests that frequent use of inhaled β2-agonists has a deleterious effect on the control of asthma. Epidemics of mortality are explained by an increase in chronic severity of asthma following introduction of more potent β2-agonists. While β2-agonists remain essential for relief of breakthrough symptoms, long term use, particularly with high doses of potent agents, appears to be detrimental.


Asthma Adis International Limited Salbutamol Budesonide Asthmatic Patient 
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Copyright information

© Adis International Limited 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Malcolm R. Sears
    • 1
  • D. Robin Taylor
    • 2
  1. 1.Firestone Regional Chest and Allergy UnitSt Joseph’s Hospital and McMaster UniversityHamiltonCanada
  2. 2.University of Otago Medical SchoolDunedinNew Zealand

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