Medical Definition of Beta-agonist

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Last Editorial Review: 1/25/2017

Beta-agonist: A bronchodilator medicine that opens the airways by relaxing the muscles around the airways that may tighten during an asthma attack or in COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Beta-agonists can be administered by inhalers or orally. They are called "agonists" because they activate the beta-2 receptor on the muscles surrounding the airways. Activation of beta-2 receptors relaxes the muscles surrounding the airways and opens the airways. Dilating airways helps to relieve the symptoms of dyspnea (shortness of breath). Beta-2 agonists have been shown to relieve dyspnea in many asthma and COPD patients. The action of beta-2 agonists starts within minutes after inhalation and lasts for about 4 hours. Because of their quick onset of action, beta-2 agonists are especially helpful for patients who are acutely short of breath but, because of their short duration of action, several doses of beta-agonists are often necessary each day. The side effects of beta-2 agonists include anxiety, tremor, palpitations or fast heart rate, and low blood potassium.

Examples of beta-2 agonists include albuterol (Ventolin, Proventil), metaproterenol (Alupent), pirbuterol (Maxair), terbutaline (Brethaire), isoetharine (Bronkosol), and Levalbuterol (Xopenex). Beta-2 agonists with a slower onset of action but a longer period of activity such as salmeterol xinafoate (Serevent) are now available. Salmeterol has a duration of action of twelve hours and need only be taken twice a day.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/25/2017