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Overuse of asthma inhalant risky

Published Oct. 10, 2005

People who overuse a common kind of inhaled drug used to relieve asthma attacks face a greatly increased risk of death, a study concludes.

The researchers don't know whether the drugs, called beta agonists, are to blame. But they said asthmatics nearly triple their chance of death with each canister of the spray they use each month. The risk varies, depending on the kind of beta agonist taken. The study found that fenoterol, a double-strength variety of beta agonist made by Boihringer-Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals of Germany, was especially linked with complications.

The risk of death about doubled with each canister per month of another variety, albuterol, the study found. This kind is sold under such brands as Proventil and Ventolin.

Beta agonists have long been the primary drug used to treat asthma, but some doctors are now recommending that other drugs be used first and beta agonists reserved for acute attacks.

"If a patient is using more than one canister of beta agonist a month, they are using too much, and their asthma is probably out of control and needs to be evaluated," said Dr. A. Sonia Buist, a physician at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. He is a co-author of the report, published in today's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.