To test the efficacy of a combined alpha- and beta-receptor agonist in acute bronchiolitis, we compared inhaled racemic epinephrine with salbutamol in a double-blind, crossover, randomized protocol. Twenty-four infants, 4.6 +/- 0.5 (mean +/- SEM) months of age, with their first episode of bronchiolitis were tested. After sedation with chloral hydrate, a clinical score and pulmonary mechanics measurements using simultaneous signals of airflow volume and transpulmonary pressure were recorded. After baseline measurements, infants received either nebulized salbutamol, 0.03 ml/kg, or racemic epinephrine, 0.1 ml/kg. Thirty minutes later, there was a significant decrease in clinical score after treatment with racemic epinephrine compared with the baseline score (p < 0.001); this difference was not present after salbutamol inhalation (p = 0.42). Only 13 patients had a decrease in clinical score after salbutamol therapy, in comparison with 20 infants treated with racemic epinephrine (p < 0.01). Both drug decreased respiratory rate, but the decrease was greater after the use of racemic epinephrine (p < 0.001). There was a significant decrease in inspiratory, expiratory, and total pulmonary resistance after treatment with racemic epinephrine compared with baseline values (p < 0.01) but no significant change after salbutamol inhalation. There was no significant correlation between the clinical score and pulmonary mechanics either at baseline or after drug treatment. We conclude that racemic epinephrine is superior to salbutamol in the treatment of infants with their first episode of acute bronchiolitis.