Lung opioid receptors: pharmacology and possible target for nebulized morphine in dyspnea

Life Sci. 2000;66(23):2221-31. doi: 10.1016/s0024-3205(00)00434-3.


Opioid receptors are located throughout the respiratory tract. Yet, these have received relatively scant attention compared to other opioid receptors. The most abundant sites within the respiratory tract appear localized within the alveolar walls, other sites appear to line the smooth muscle within the trachea and main bronchi near the lumen. There is about 100-times greater [3H]morphine binding density within the bronchioles and lobes than in the main bronchi or trachea. In addition to the usual mu, delta and kappa types of opioid receptors, 'non-conventional' opioid binding sites have been suggested, although the function of these or of the other opioid receptors in the pulmonary tract is not known. However, they might explain the otherwise counterintuitive apparent utility of morphine treatment of dyspnea. Dyspnea is a common and distressing symptom in terminally-ill cancer patients and patients with chronic lung disease. It results from multiple causes, is difficult to treat and is a significant precipitating factor for late-stage hospital or hospice admissions. Nebulized morphine or other opioids have been reported to have beneficial effect, but the mechanism by which opioids might produce this seemingly contradictory effect is not clear. We review here lung opioid receptor distribution, pharmacology and possible clinical relevance in the treatment of dyspnea.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Inhalation
  • Analgesics, Opioid / administration & dosage
  • Analgesics, Opioid / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Dyspnea / drug therapy*
  • Humans
  • Lung / drug effects*
  • Lung / metabolism*
  • Morphine / administration & dosage
  • Morphine / pharmacology*
  • Receptors, Opioid / drug effects*


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Receptors, Opioid
  • Morphine