, Volume 24, Issue 5, pp 414–439 | Cite as

Combination Bronchodilator Therapy

  • Gillian M. Shenfield
Review Articles


Bronchodilators may be classified into 3 groups: anticholinergics, β-adrenoceptor agonists and methylxanthines. These drugs act through related biochemical pathways and there are theoretical reasons for expecting beneficial additive or synergistic interactions between them. While there is in vitro evidence of synergistic interactions producing bronchodilatation, in vivo studies indicate that the interactions are additive rather than synergistic but still of therapeutic value.

There have been no clinical studies on methylxanthines combined with anticholinergic drugs, but there is an extensive and growing literature on the other combinations. The majority show clear evidence of an additive bronchodilator effect when anticholinergics are combined with β2-adrenoceptor agonists, although atropine sulphate is less effective in this regard than atropine methylnitrate or ipratropium bromide. This type of combination has only been tested by inhalation and, because of the slower onset of action of the anticholinergic group, it is preferable that the β2-adrenoceptor agonist be inhaled first. There is no evidence for an additive interaction of the side effects of these drugs. In general, bronchitics respond better than asthmatics to anticholinergic drugs.

Studies on methylxanthines (usually theophylline) and adrenoceptor agonists may be divided into 2 groups: those using ephedrine and those using more selective β-adrenoceptor agonists. Ephedrine is a relatively ineffective bronchodilator and often fails to add any useful bronchodilatation to theophylline. Also, there does seem to be a synergistic increase in side effects of the two drugs and this combination is therefore undesirable. Ephedrine has now been superseded by the more selective β2- adrenoceptor agonist drugs all of which, whether given orally, intravenously or by inhalation, appear to have an additive effect with the methylxanthines.

It is often possible to achieve the same theapeutic effect with half doses of drugs from 2 different groups as with a full dose of 1 drug. This may sometimes, but not always, reduce side effects. There is evidence that giving 2 drugs by different routes is a useful therapeutic procedure: for example, the addition of an inhaled β2-adrenoceptor agonist may improve upon the maximal bronchodilatation achieved with intravenous theophylline. When theophylline is administered plasma levels of the drug should be monitored and it is possible that, when used in combination with a β2-adrenoceptor agonist, a therapeutic range lower than that normally recommended may apply.

There is no longer any place for fixed combination bronchodilators and, in spite of recent suggestions, there is no evidence that bronchodilator combinations are responsible for an increase in asthma mortality.

Further studies to clarify some aspects of bronchodilator combinations are needed. The therapeutic use of various combinations is briefly discussed.


Asthma Theophylline Salbutamol Ephedrine Terbutaline 
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Copyright information

© ADIS Press Australasia Pty Ltd (Inc. NSW) 1982

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gillian M. Shenfield
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Clinical PharmacologyRoyal North Shore HospitalSt Leonards, SydneyAustralia

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