Beta 2 agonists reduce airway hypersensitivity to bronchoconstrictor stimuli acutely in patients with asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease. To determine whether these drugs also protect against excessive airway narrowing, the effect of inhaled salbutamol on the position and shape of the dose-response curves for histamine or methacholine was investigated in 12 patients with asthma and 11 with chronic obstructive lung disease. After pretreatment with salbutamol (200 or 400 micrograms) or placebo in a double blind manner dose-response curves for inhaled histamine and methacholine were obtained by a standard method on six days in random order. Airway sensitivity was defined as the concentration of histamine or methacholine causing a 20% fall in FEV1 (PC20). A maximal response plateau on the log dose-response curve was considered to be present if two or more data points for FEV1 fell within a 5% response range. In the absence of a plateau, the test was continued until a predetermined level of severe bronchoconstriction was reached. Salbutamol caused an acute increase in FEV1 (mean increase 11.5% predicted in asthma, 7.2% in chronic obstructive lung disease), and increase in PC20 (mean 15 fold in asthma, fivefold in chronic obstructive lung disease), and an increase in the slope of the dose-response curves in both groups. In subjects in whom a plateau of FEV1 response could be measured salbutamol did not change the level of the plateau. In subjects without a plateau salbutamol did not lead to the development of a plateau, despite achieving a median FEV1 of 44% predicted in asthma and 39% in chronic obstructive lung disease. These results show that, although beta 2 agonists acutely reduce the airway response to a given strength of bronchoconstrictor stimulus, they do not protect against excessive airflow obstruction if there is exposure to relatively strong stimuli. This, together with the steepening of the dose-response curve, could be a disadvantage of beta 2 agonists in the treatment of moderate and severe asthma or chronic obstructive lung disease.
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