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Drug Saf. 2001;24(14):1065-80.

Asthma medications and their potential adverse effects in the elderly: recommendations for prescribing.

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Department of Medicine for the Elderly, Woodend Hospital, Aberdeen, Scotland.


The incidence of drug-induced adverse effects is likely to increase as a result of advanced age and exposure of elderly patients to polypharmacy. Therefore, pharmacological therapy of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in the elderly patient can be potentially hazardous. beta(2)-agonists, administered as therapy for asthma and COPD, have recognised systemic sequelae, such as hypokalaemia and chronotropic effects, which may be life-threatening in susceptible patients. Adverse effects such as hypokalaemia can be aggravated by concomitant treatment with other drugs promoting potassium loss including diuretics, corticosteroids and theophyllines. In addition, relatively minor adverse events associated with the administration of beta(2)-agonists, such as tremor and blood pressure changes, may be of significance to the elderly patient leading to impairment in the quality of life. However, long-term treatment with beta(2)-agonists may reduce the incidence of drug-induced adverse effects as a result of beta-receptor subsensitivity. Oral and inhaled corticosteroids have been used for the treatment of acute asthma and COPD in the elderly patient. Long-term treatment with oral corticosteroids can result in serious systemic adverse effects such as suppressed adrenal function, bone loss, skin thinning and cataract formation. In contrast to beta(2)-agonists, oral corticosteroids can upregulate beta(2)-adrenoceptors and thereby potentiate the systemic sequelae of beta(2)-agonists. Hence, oral corticosteroids should be administered with caution for as short a duration as possible. Inhaled corticosteroids appear to be relatively well tolerated when administered at doses below approximately 1000 microg. However, larger doses of inhaled corticosteroids may affect hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function and bone turnover. In the case of inhaled corticosteroids, spacer devices, often used in older patients who cannot operate metered dose inhalers, can potentiate the systemic sequelae of both corticosteroids and beta(2)-agonists. The use of theophyllines in the treatment of COPD or chronic asthma is controversial. Theophyllines have a wide adverse effect profile and are prone to drug-drug interactions. The adverse effects may be mild or life threatening and include nausea and vomiting or sinus and supraventricular tachycardias. Therefore, theophyllines should be prescribed with extreme caution to elderly patients with asthma or COPD. In contrast, inhaled anticholinergic drugs such as ipratropium bromide and oxitropium bromide are generally safe in elderly patients and have useful bronchodilator function. Commonly reported adverse effects are an unpleasant taste and dryness of the mouth. When used as first-line therapy, anticholinergic drugs may optimise the bronchodilator effects of low-dose inhaled beta(2)-agonists in patients with chronic airflow obstruction, and hence obviate the need for higher doses.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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