The use of β-agonists and the risk of death and near death from asthma

Samy Suissa, Pierre Ernst, Jean François Boivin, Ralph I. Horwitz, Brian Habbick, Donald Cockcroft, Mary Mcnutt, A. Sonia Buist, Anthony S. Rebuck, Walter O. Spitzer, Ralph I. Horwitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

250 Scopus citations


Background.Morbidity and mortality from asthma appear to be increasing, and it has been suggested that medications used to treat asthma are contributing to this trend. We investigated a possible association between death or near death from asthma and the regular use of β2-agonist bronchodilators. Methods. Using linked health insurance data bases from Saskatchewan, Canada, we conducted a matched case–control study of subjects drawn from a cohort of 12,301 patients for whom asthma medications had been prescribed between 1978 and 1987. We matched 129 case patients who had fatal or near-fatal asthma with 655 controls (who had received medications for asthma but had not had fatal or near-fatal events) with respect to region of residence, age, receipt of social assistance, and previous hospitalization for asthma. Results. The use of β-agonists administered by a metered-dose inhaler was associated with an increased risk of death from asthma (odds ratio, 2.6 per canister per month; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.7 to 3.9) and of death or near death from asthma, considered together (odds ratio, 1.9; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.6 to 2.4). For death from asthma, use of the β-agonist fenoterol was associated with an odds ratio of 5.4 per canister, as compared with 2.4 for the β-agonist albuterol. On a microgram-equivalent basis, the odds ratio for this outcome with fenoterol was 2.3, as compared with 2.4 with albuterol. Conclusions. An increased risk of death or near death from asthma was associated with the regular use of inhaled β2-agonist bronchodilators, especially fenoterol. Regardless of whether β-agonists are directly responsible for these adverse effects or are simply a marker for more severe asthma, heavy use of these agents should alert clinicians that it is necessary to reevaluate the patient's condition. (N Engl J Med 1992;326: 501–6.).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)501-506
Number of pages6
JournalNew England Journal of Medicine
Issue number8
StatePublished - Feb 20 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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