Formoterol has a similar onset of effect to salbutamol but a prolonged duration of action. However, the relative efficacy of the two drugs in acute severe asthma is not known. This double-blind, double-dummy study compared the safety and efficacy of the maximum recommended daily dose of formoterol and a predicted equivalent dose of salbutamol in 88 patients presenting to the emergency department with acute severe asthma. Patients were randomized to formoterol 54 microg via Turbuhaler or salbutamol 2400 microg via pressurized metered dose inhaler (pMDI) plus spacer in three equal doses over 1 h. Following the full dose, mean FEV1 at 75 min increased by 37% for formoterol and 28% for salbutamol (P = 0.18). The maximum increase in FEV1 over 4 h was significantly greater with formoterol compared with salbutamol (51% vs. 36%, respectively P < 0.05) and formoterol was as effective as salbutamol at improving symptoms and wellbeing. Both treatments were well tolerated. Formoterol caused a greater decrease in serum potassium (difference -0.2 mmol/l). In severe acute asthma, bronchodilator therapy with high-dose (54 microg) formoterol Turbuhaler provided equally rapid improvements in lung function of greater magnitude over 4 h than high-dose (2400 microg) salbutamol pMDI plus spacer.