BACKGROUND: Regular, inhaled beta 2 agonists may increase airway responsiveness in asthmatic subjects. The mechanism is not known but may be via an increase in airway inflammation. A study was undertaken to examine the effect of regular inhaled salbutamol on airway responsiveness to methacholine and hypertonic saline, on the maximal response plateau to methacholine, and on inflammatory cells in induced sputum in rhinitic non-asthmatic subjects. METHODS: Thirty subjects with a baseline maximal response plateau of > 15% fall in forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) entered a randomised, placebo controlled, parallel trial consisting of two weeks run in, four weeks of treatment, and two weeks washout. Methacholine challenges were performed at the beginning of the run in period, before treatment, after treatment, and after washout. Hypertonic saline challenges were performed before and after treatment and induced sputum samples were collected for differential cell counting. RESULTS: There was no change in airway responsiveness, maximal response plateau to methacholine, or in induced sputum eosinophils or mast cells. The maximum fall in FEV1 after hypertonic saline increased in the salbutamol group (median change 6.0%, interquartile range (IQR) 11.0) but did not change in the placebo group (median change 1.3%, IQR 5.5). CONCLUSIONS: Regular inhaled salbutamol for four weeks increases airway responsiveness to hypertonic saline but does not alter airway responsiveness to methacholine or cells in induced sputum in non-asthmatic individuals with rhinitis. The relevance of these findings to asthmatic subjects has not been established.
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