We studied 40 patients with acute exacerbations of asthma to determine the efficacy of a 3-h intravenous infusion of aminophylline in patients who were already being treated with an inhaled beta-adrenergic agonist (metaproterenol). Each patient was treated with inhaled metaproterenol at hourly intervals for 3 h. In addition, patients were randomly assigned to therapy with either intravenous aminophylline or placebo. Neither the patient nor the house officers and nurses caring for the patient knew whether aminophylline or placebo was given. The FEV1 improved continually throughout the study to a similar extent in both treatment groups, but the patients treated with aminophylline had significantly more adverse effects (p less than 0.025, Mann-Whitney). There was no apparent benefit from aminophylline even in patients who presented to the emergency room with severe airway obstruction (FEV1 less than 0.8L) or with plasma theophylline levels less than 10 mg/L. We conclude that intravenous aminophylline adds to the toxicity but not the efficacy of inhaled metaproterenol in the treatment of acute exacerbations of asthma.