Don’t bronchodilators work in infants?

Inpatient paediatric teams can be scornful when bronchodilators are given by ED staff to wheezing infants, correctly referring to the lack of evidence of clinical benefit(1). There is however a persisting meme out there I’ve heard on a number of occasions that ‘young infants don’t have the receptors so inhaled beta agonists will never work.’ I’d love to know where this comes from.

Apparently, beta 2-receptors are present from the 16th gestational week(2). Pulmonary function testing of ventilated, very-low-birth-weight babies has shown that some consistently responded to beta-agonists whereas others did not(3). A newly published study reports that a quarter of mechanically ventilated infants with bronchiolitis were responders to inhaled albuterol, defined as a reduction in respiratory system resistance more than 30% below baseline(4).

In summary: beta-agonist bronchodilators have not been shown to improve clinical outcomes in wheezing infants. However some infants with some wheezing disorders will show a response in terms of pulmonary function. The receptors are there, and in life-threatening presentations bronchodilators should certainly be considered.

1. Short acting beta agonists for recurrent wheeze in children under 2 years of age
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002;(3):CD002873


BACKGROUND: Wheeze is a common symptom in infancy and is a common cause for both primary care consultations and hospital admission. Beta2-adrenoceptor agonists (b2-agonists) are the most frequently used as bronchodilator but their efficacy is questionable.
OBJECTIVES: To determine the effectiveness of b2-agonist for the treatment of infants with recurrent and persistent wheeze.
SEARCH STRATEGY: Relevant trials were identified using the Cochrane Airways Group database (CENTRAL), Medline and Pubmed. The database search used the following terms: Wheeze or asthma and Infant or Child and Short acting beta-agonist or Salbutamol (variants), Albuterol, Terbutaline (variants), Orciprenaline, Fenoterol

SELECTION CRITERIA: Randomised controlled trials comparing the effect of b2-agonist against placebo in children under 2 years of age who had had two or more previous episodes of wheeze, not related to another form of chronic lung disease.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Eight studies met the criteria for inclusion in this meta-analysis. The studies investigated patients in three settings: at home (3 studies), in hospital (2 studies) and in the pulmonary function laboratory (3 studies). The main outcome measure was change in respiratory rate except for community based studies where symptom scores were used.

MAIN RESULTS: The studies were markedly heterogeneous and between study comparisons were limited. Improvement in respiratory rate, symptom score and oxygen saturation were noted in one study in the emergency department following two salbutamol nebulisers but this had no impact on hospital admission. There was a reduction in bronchial reactivity following salbutamol. There was no significant benefit from taking regular inhaled salbutamol on symptom scores recorded at home.

REVIEWER’S CONCLUSIONS: There is no clear benefit of using b2-agonists in the management of recurrent wheeze in the first two years of life although there is conflicting evidence. At present, further studies should only be performed if the patient group can be clearly defined and there is a suitable outcome parameter capable of measuring a response.

2. The beta-2-agonists in asthma in infants and young children
Arch Pediatr. 2002 Aug;9 Suppl 3:384s-389s


Beta 2-agonists, by inducing a fast and long relaxation of the bronchial smooth muscle, are considered as the more potent bronchodilators. beta 2-receptors are present from the 16th gestational week, explaining a possible bronchial response in the youngest children. beta 2-agonists do not induce any bronchodilator response in healthy children. Short-acting beta 2-agonists (salbutamol or albuterol, terbutaline) are indicated for asthma attacks, as needed in chronic asthma, and for prevention of symptoms during effort. They are safe and secure. The more efficient route of administration in preschool children is pressurized metered-dose inhaler used with a spacer device. Therefore, whatever the route of inhalation chosen (inhalation, injection, or continuous nebulization in acute asthma attack), more specified indications and doses are needed in young children. Long-acting beta 2-agonists (formoterol, salmeterol) are not authorized in France in children under 4 to 5 years of age depending on the drug used. Because of new oral formulations and recent considerations about their use in asthma attack, instead of short-acting beta 2-agonists, their indication in preschool asthmatic children might be reconsidered.

3. Use of a beta-agonist in ventilated, very-low-birth-weight babies: a longitudinal evaluation
Dev Pharmacol Ther. 1990;15(2):61-7


To determine if there is a specific postnatal (PNA) or postconceptional age (PCA) at which ventilated preterm infants respond to beta-agonists, we evaluated 15 infants with a mean gestational age of 26.5 +/- 1.5 weeks and mean birth weight of 0.89 +/- 0.23 kg who required mechanical ventilation at 10 days of age. Weekly pulmonary function testing (PFT) was performed before and 1 h after administration of albuterol. Taking the group as a whole, as well as individual babies, regression analysis showed no relationship between positive response and either PNA or PCA. Evaluation of individual infants, however, showed that some consistently responded to beta-agonists whereas others did not. We recommend individual PFT to identify those infants who will benefit from use of beta-agonists.

4. Pulmonary mechanics following albuterol therapy in mechanically ventilated infants with bronchiolitis
J Asthma. 2012 Sep;49(7):688-96


BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Bronchiolitis is a common cause of critical illness in infants. Inhaled β(2)-agonist bronchodilators are frequently used as part of treatment, despite unproven effectiveness. The purpose of this study was to describe the physiologic response to these medications in infants intubated and mechanically ventilated for bronchiolitis.

MATERIALS AND METHODS: We conducted a prospective trial of albuterol treatment in infants intubated and mechanically ventilated for bronchiolitis. Before and for 30 minutes following inhaled albuterol treatment, sequential assessments of pulmonary mechanics were determined using the interrupter technique on repeated consecutive breaths.

RESULTS: Fifty-four infants were enrolled. The median age was 44 days (25-75%; interquartile range (IQR) 29-74 days), mean hospital length of stay (LOS) was 18.3 ± 13.3 days, mean ICU LOS was 11.3 ± 6.4 days, and mean duration of mechanical ventilation was 8.5 ± 3.5 days. Fifty percent (n = 27) of the infants were male, 81% (n = 44) had public insurance, 80% (n = 41) were Caucasian, and 39% (n = 21) were Hispanic. Fourteen of the 54 (26%) had reduction in respiratory system resistance (Rrs) that was more than 30% below baseline, and were defined as responders to albuterol. Response to albuterol was not associated with demographic factors or hospitalization outcomes such as LOS or duration of mechanical ventilation. However, increased Rrs, prematurity, and non-Hispanic ethnicity were associated with increased LOS.

CONCLUSIONS: In this population of mechanically ventilated infants with bronchiolitis, relatively few had a reduction in pulmonary resistance in response to inhaled albuterol therapy. This response was not associated with improvements in outcomes.