Beta-adrenergic agonists and antagonists have been shown to alter theophylline pharmacokinetics. It was the purpose of this study to characterize further the effects that terbutaline and propranolol have on theophylline disposition. In nine healthy male volunteers, mean parameters for theophylline disposition did not change after four days of terbutaline (5 mg q8h). Theophylline clearance, however, did change within the subjects. Clearance increased in five subjects, decreased in three, and remained unchanged in one volunteer. Pretreatment with four days of terbutaline (5 mg q8h) and propranolol (60 mg q8h) significantly decreased mean theophylline clearance (60.1 +/- 12.9 vs 40.6 +/- 9.9 mL/min/1.73m2; P less than .01) increased half-life (8.37 +/- 1.77 vs 12.32 +/- 2.70 hours; P less than .05), and increased postinfusion theophylline concentration (13.5 +/- 2.7 vs 18.95 +/- 2.5 micrograms/mL; P less than .001). In five subjects theophylline clearance increased after terbutaline pretreatment (64.6 +/- 13.0 vs 75.0 +/- 13.9 mL/min/1.73m2). The percentage increase ranged from 3.9 to 28.5%. These subjects were restudied after receiving propranolol alone (60 mg q8h). Comparison between the propranolol and terbutaline study and the propranolol alone study indicated no mean change in clearance in these five subjects (41.8 +/- 12.7 vs 36.1 +/- 5.1 mL/min/1.73m2). Thus it appears that the changes observed in these five subjects after terbutaline pretreatment may have been random in occurrence as has been shown to occur with theophylline disposition and are not related to terbutaline pretreatment. It is concluded that beta-2 adrenergic stimulation does not alter theophylline pharmacokinetics, whereas nonselective beta-adrenergic antagonism profoundly affected theophylline disposition. This is an additional reason not to use propranolol in patients who receive theophylline.