Drug Safety

, Volume 24, Issue 14, pp 1065–1080 | Cite as

Asthma Medications and their Potential Adverse Effects in the Elderly

Recommendations for Prescribing
  • Donald Mackenzie Newnham
Practical Drug Safety


The incidence of drug-induced adverse effects is likely to increase as a result of advanced age and exposure of elderly patients to polypharmacy. Therefore, pharmacological therapy of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in the elderly patient can be potentially hazardous.

β2-agonists, administered as therapy for asthma and COPD, have recognised systemic sequelae, such as hypokalaemia and chronotropic effects, which may be life-threatening in susceptible patients. Adverse effects such as hypokalaemia can be aggravated by concomitant treatment with other drugs promoting potassium loss including diuretics, corticosteorids and theophyllines. In addition, relatively minor adverse events associated with the administration of β2-agonists, such as tremor and blood pressure changes, may be of significance to the elderly patient leading to impairment in the quality of life. However, long-term treatment with β2-agonists may reduce the incidence of drug-induced adverse effects as a result of β-receptor subsensitivity.

Oral and inhaled corticosteroids have been used for the treatment of acute asthma and COPD in the elderly patient. Long-term treatment with oral corticosteroids can result in serious systemic adverse effects such as suppressed adrenal function, bone loss, skin thinning and cataract formation. In contrast to β2-agonists, oral corticosteroids can upregulate β2-adrenoceptors and thereby potentiate the systemic sequelae of β2-agonists. Hence, oral corticosteroids should be administered with caution for as short a duration as possible. Inhaled corticosteroids appear to be relatively well tolerated when administered at doses below approximately 1000μg. However, larger doses of inhaled corticosteroids may affect hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function and bone turnover. In the case of inhaled corticosteroids, spacer devices, often used in older patients who cannot operate metered dose inhalers, can potentiate the systemic sequelae of both corticosteroids and β2-agonists.

The use of theophyllines in the treatment of COPD or chronic asthma is controversial. Theophyllines have a wide adverse effect profile and are prone to drug-drug interactions. The adverse effects may be mild or life threatening and include nausea and vomiting or sinus and supraventricular tachycardias. Therefore, theophyllines should be prescribed with extreme caution to elderly patients with asthma or COPD.

In contrast, inhaled anticholinergic drugs such as ipratropium bromide and oxitropium bromide are generally safe in elderly patients and have useful bronchodilator function. Commonly reported adverse effects are an unpleasant taste and dryness of the mouth. When used as first-line therapy, anticholinergic drugs may optimise the bronchodilator effects of low-dose inhaled β2-agonists in patients with chronic airflow obstruction, and hence obviate the need for higher doses.


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Theophylline Budesonide Fluticasone Propionate Essential Tremor 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


The author would like to thank Ms Ulreka Sperling for aiding in the literature search (using OVID Medline database) and Mrs Susan Watt and Miss Alana McCrory for their secretarial support in preparing this article.


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© Adis Data Information BV 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Medicine for the ElderlyWoodend HospitalAberdeenScotland

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