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How Effective Is Epinephrine for Asthma?

By S. Berger
Updated Feb 08, 2024
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Asthma is a respiratory disorder characterized by inflammation in the respiratory system, and many types of medications are used to treat it. Pharmaceutical epinephrine, a synthetic version of a naturally-occurring compound, is a medication that has been used for decades as a remedy for this condition. Taking epinephrine for asthma remains one of the most effective ways to control sudden attacks that cause breathing problems. The potency of this medication, as well as the potential for side effects, mean it is not used as often as other types of asthma therapies.

Individuals do not usually take this medication as a daily maintenance drug, but instead may take epinephrine for asthma attacks. It is administered by subcutaneous injection, or an injection just below the skin. Injection allows for the drug to rapidly take effect, making it useful in situations where an asthma attack is causing severe breathing problems. Vaporized medication is the alternative for asthma attacks, and in extreme cases, individuals undergoing an attack may not be able to keep their mask on to inhale the medication. Epinephrine, therefore, remains a useful treatment for asthma because it can be given to a person regardless of their condition, or how well they manage their condition.

Using injected epinephrine for asthma attacks produces several beneficial effects. Bronchospasm, or constriction of the airways in the lungs, decreases, and the breathing rate increases. Blood pressure and heart rate will decrease as the patient's anxiety decreases and their organs begin to receive oxygen again. A 1980 study, published in the American Journal of Hospital Pharmacy, found that doses as low as 0.5 milligrams (mg) of epinephrine can produce these positive effects.

Like any medication, taking epinephrine for asthma may sometimes cause side effects. Nausea, tremors, and chills may all result from the use of this drug, but these effects are usually mild. There is a potential for increased heart rate and blood pressure, which means that some doctors do not recommend that patients with hypertension use epinephrine. Research performed at Northwestern University Medical School found that even older patients with heart conditions did not experience significant rises in blood pressure when taking the drug, however.

The side effects and risk of high blood pressure means that epinephrine's use is somewhat limited. Repeated use of this medication can also build tolerance, which is another reason it is not used as widely as newer drugs like adrenergic blockers or steroids. For emergency situations, however, epinephrine remains an indispensable asthma treatment that is effective in most individuals.

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Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Apr 14, 2013

@turquoise-- If that's the case, why is epinephrine one of the most commonly administered drugs for asthma in the hospital?

This is what they always give me when I go in.

By turquoise — On Apr 14, 2013

I'm a nurse and I have relatives who suffer from asthma. Epinephrine does reduce symptoms of asthma, but it is not the best drug for severe asthma attacks. I would only use epinephrine on someone with severe asthma if that's all I have to keep him breathing until we can get to the hospital.

And unlike some other asthma medications, epinephrine cannot be given over and over again because of its side effects. It increases heart rate too much and will cause heart-related issues in higher doses.

By fBoyle — On Apr 13, 2013

I've been using epinephrine for several years now when I get an asthma attack. It's very effective, it opens up my airways quickly and I can breathe again in just a few minutes.

Sometimes it causes some side effects, it can make me very tired for the rest of the day and sometimes it gives me anxiety. But I since it treats my asthma effectively, I deal with it.

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