The effectiveness of nebulized anticholinergic and sympathomimetic regimens was evaluated in a double-blind study of 199 patients with acute airways obstruction. Patients were assigned to one of three treatment regimens according to a randomized schedule: 0.5 mg of ipratropium bromide, 1.25 mg of fenoterol hydrobromide, and 0.5 mg of ipratropium plus 1.25 mg of fenoterol. In 148 patients with acute exacerbations of asthma (mean one-second forced expiratory volume, 1.18 +/- 0.64 liters), all three regimens produced significant improvement in one-second forced expiratory volume (p less than 0.001). The greatest improvement followed treatment with the ipratropium-fenoterol combination (0.53 +/- 0.40 liters at 45 minutes; 0.57 +/- 0.51 liters at 90 minutes) and was significantly greater than that following either ipratropium alone (p less than 0.001) or fenoterol alone (p less than 0.05). In 51 patients with acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (mean one-second forced expiratory volume, 0.67 +/- 0.29 liter), each regimen produced significant improvement in one-second forced expiratory volume at both 45 and 90 minutes (for all, p less than 0.05), but there was no significant difference among the three treatment regimens. It is concluded that, in patients with acute asthma, combination therapy with sympathomimetic and anticholinergic agents is more efficacious than either one alone. In patients with acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, although either sympathomimetic or anticholinergic therapy provides bronchodilatation, no further benefit could be demonstrated from combination therapy.