Airway subsensitivity with long-acting beta 2-agonists. Is there cause for concern?

Drug Saf. 1997 May;16(5):295-308. doi: 10.2165/00002018-199716050-00002.


Regular treatment with both long- and short-acting beta 2-agonists results in tolerance to their bronchoprotective effects, although the relevance of this phenomenon in terms of long term asthma control remains unclear. However, there appears to be no appreciable difference between the 2 long-active beta 2-agonists, salmeterol and formoterol, in their propensity to induce beta 2-adrenoceptor down-regulation and subsensitivity. The degree of subsensitivity appears to be somewhat greater with indirect stimuli such as exercise and allergen challenge, compared with direct stimuli such as histamine and methacholine. This loss of functional antagonism with long-acting beta 2-agonist therapy is partial and is not prevented by concomitant inhaled corticosteroid therapy. However, the protective effects of inhaled corticosteroids on their own appear to be additive to those of long-acting beta 2-agonists when both drugs are concomitantly administered in the long term. The subsensitivity to bronchoprotection may be of clinical relevance in terms of patients who are inadvertently exposed to indirect bronchoconstrictor stimuli such as allergens or exercise, suggesting that long-acting beta 2-agonists should not be taken on a regular basis for this particular indication. There is a greater tendency for bronchodilator subsensitivity to develop with longer-acting, than with shorter-acting beta 2-agonists, and this may reflect the longer duration of beta 2-adrenoceptor occupancy and consequent downregulation. As with the bronchoprotective effects of long-acting beta 2-agonists, the development of bronchodilator subsensitivity is only partial and occurs regardless of whether patients are taking concomitant inhaled corticosteroid therapy. The long-term bronchodilator action of the long-acting beta 2-agonist itself is maintained within the twice daily administration interval. However, subsensitivity occurs in relation to a blunted response to repeated doses of short-acting beta 2-agonists, as in the setting of an acute asthma attack. There is considerable inter-individual variability in the propensity for downregulation and subsensitivity, which is determined by genetic polymorphism of the beta 2-adrenoceptor. Current international asthma management guidelines suggest that long-acting beta 2-agonists should be used on a regular basis in patients who ware inadequately controlled on inhaled corticosteroid therapy, so the addition of long-acting beta 2-agonist therapy is an alternative to using higher doses of inhaled corticosteroids. There are, however, concerns that regular long-acting beta 2-agonists might result in masking of inadequately treated inflammation in patients receiving suboptimal inhaled corticosteroid therapy. Physicians should be aware of the airway subsensitivity that develops with long-acting beta 2-agonist therapy, and patients should be warned that they may have to use higher than conventional dosages of short-acting beta 2-agonists to relieve acute bronchoconstriction in order to overcome this effect. In patients receiving an optimised maintenance dose of inhaled corticosteroid, if long-acting beta 2-agonists are to be used on an as required basis, it would seem rational to use formoterol for this purpose, due to its faster onset of action than salmeterol.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / administration & dosage
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / adverse effects
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / therapeutic use
  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists / administration & dosage
  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists / adverse effects*
  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists / therapeutic use
  • Albuterol / administration & dosage
  • Albuterol / adverse effects
  • Albuterol / analogs & derivatives*
  • Albuterol / therapeutic use
  • Asthma / drug therapy
  • Asthma / genetics
  • Bronchial Hyperreactivity / chemically induced*
  • Bronchoconstriction / drug effects
  • Bronchodilator Agents / administration & dosage
  • Bronchodilator Agents / adverse effects*
  • Bronchodilator Agents / therapeutic use
  • Down-Regulation
  • Ethanolamines / administration & dosage
  • Ethanolamines / adverse effects*
  • Ethanolamines / therapeutic use
  • Formoterol Fumarate
  • Humans
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta-2 / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta-2 / genetics
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta-2 / metabolism
  • Salmeterol Xinafoate


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists
  • Bronchodilator Agents
  • Ethanolamines
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta-2
  • Salmeterol Xinafoate
  • Albuterol
  • Formoterol Fumarate