In mechanically ventilated patients, systemic blood levels of inhaled drugs reflect absorption from the lower respiratory tract alone since, unlike nonintubated patients, oropharyngeal and gastrointestinal absorption cannot occur. To determine the efficiency of aerosol administration by a metered-dose inhaler (MDI), we measured serum albuterol levels after administration by a MDI and spacer to nine mechanically ventilated patients (10 puffs) and to 10 healthy subjects (six puffs). Serum albuterol levels (+/- SEM) quantitated by high-performance liquid chromatography and electrochemical detection were: 0.09 +/- 0.04 mg/ml/puff at baseline, 0.66 +/- 0.10 at 5 min, 0.98 +/- 0.10 at 10 min, 0.56 +/- 0.08 at 15 min, and 0.37 +/- 0.03 at 30 min in mechanically ventilated patients versus zero at baseline, 0.89 +/- 0.12 at 5 min, 1.27 +/- 0.13 at 10 min, 0.84 +/- 0.09 at 15 min, and 0.53 +/- 0.07 at 30 min in control subjects (p > or = 0.07 at 5, 10, and 30 min; p < or = 0.05 at baseline and at 15 min). Area under the curve (AUC0-30) in the mechanically ventilated patients was 16.8 +/- 1.4 versus 23.4 +/- 1.9 ng/ml/puff x min in control subjects (p = 0.014). In summary, administration of albuterol with a MDI achieved a profile of serum levels in mechanically ventilated patients similar to that in healthy control subjects, but the peak serum level and systemic bioavailability (AUC0-30) were lower in the patients. In conclusion, serum levels reliably assess lower respiratory tract deposition of albuterol, and show that MDIs are more efficient for aerosol delivery in mechanically ventilated patients than was previously reported in studies using radiolabeled aerosols.