Background: Morbidity and mortality from asthma appear to be increasing, and it has been suggested that medications used to treat asthma are contributing to this trend. We investigated a possible association between death or near death from asthma and the regular use of beta 2-agonist bronchodilators.
Methods: Using linked health insurance data bases from Saskatchewan, Canada, we conducted a matched case-control study of subjects drawn from a cohort of 12,301 patients for whom asthma medications had been prescribed between 1978 and 1987. We matched 129 case patients who had fatal or near-fatal asthma with 655 controls (who had received medications for asthma but had not had fatal or near-fatal events) with respect to region of residence, age, receipt of social assistance, and previous hospitalization for asthma.
Results: The use of beta-agonists administered by a metered-dose inhaler was associated with an increased risk of death from asthma (odds ratio, 2.6 per canister per month; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.7 to 3.9) and of death or near death from asthma, considered together (odds ratio, 1.9; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.6 to 2.4). For death from asthma, use of the beta-agonist fenoterol was associated with an odds ratio of 5.4 per canister, as compared with 2.4 for the beta-agonist albuterol. On a microgram-equivalent basis, the odds ratio for this outcome with fenoterol was 2.3, as compared with 2.4 with albuterol.
Conclusions: An increased risk of death or near death from asthma was associated with the regular use of inhaled beta 2-agonist bronchodilators, especially fenoterol. Regardless of whether beta-agonists are directly responsible for these adverse effects or are simply a marker for more severe asthma, heavy use of these agents should alert clinicians that it is necessary to reevaluate the patient's condition.