Bronchodilators Overview and Practice Questions Vector

Bronchodilators: Overview and Practice Questions (2024)

by | Updated: May 16, 2024

Bronchodilators are a cornerstone in the management of respiratory conditions that constrict the airways, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

By relaxing the muscles surrounding the airways, these medications facilitate easier breathing and are essential in both emergency and long-term treatment settings.

They come in various forms, including short-acting and long-acting beta-2 agonists, anticholinergics, and methylxanthines, each tailored to address specific aspects of respiratory care.

This article explores the types, mechanisms, applications, and potential side effects of bronchodilators, providing a comprehensive overview of their role in airway pharmacology.

What is a Bronchodilator?

A bronchodilator is a type of medication designed to relax and widen the airways in the lungs, which can help alleviate symptoms of respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other breathing disorders.

Bronchodilation vs. Bronchoconstriction vector illustration

Bronchodilators work by relaxing the muscles around the airways that tighten during an asthma attack or due to chronic inflammation in diseases like COPD. This action helps to open up the airways, making it easier for air to move in and out of the lungs.

Bronchodilators come in various forms, including inhalers, nebulizers, and sometimes pills or liquids. They can be categorized mainly into two types:

  1. Short-acting bronchodilators
  2. Long-acting bronchodilators

Short-Acting Bronchodilators

Short-acting bronchodilators, also known as quick-relief or rescue medications, are used to rapidly alleviate symptoms of respiratory distress. They work by quickly relaxing the muscles around the airways, making it easier for air to flow through them.

This rapid action helps to relieve symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest that are commonly associated with asthma and other obstructive airway conditions.

These medications are typically used during an asthma attack or any sudden worsening of symptoms. Common examples include albuterol and levalbuterol.

Note: Due to their fast-acting nature, they are essential in emergency situations but are not intended for long-term control of chronic respiratory conditions.

Long-Acting Bronchodilators

Long-acting bronchodilators are designed to provide a prolonged effect in keeping the airways open and are crucial in the long-term management of chronic respiratory diseases like asthma and COPD.

Unlike their short-acting counterparts, these medications are used on a regular schedule to maintain open airways and prevent symptoms rather than for immediate relief.

They help to relax the muscles around the airways for an extended period, typically covering at least 12 hours, which helps to reduce the frequency of symptom flare-ups and improves overall breathing.

Long-acting bronchodilators include medications such as salmeterol, formoterol, and tiotropium, and are often combined with inhaled steroids in maintenance therapy to enhance their effectiveness and manage inflammation.

Note: They are not suitable for treating acute symptoms due to their slower onset of action.

Types of Bronchodilators

Bronchodilators are primarily classified based on their mechanism of action and duration of effect.

Here are the main types:

  1. Beta-2 Agonists
  2. Anticholinergics
  3. Methylxanthines

Beta-2 Agonists

Beta-2 agonists are the most common type of bronchodilator used in the treatment of respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD. These drugs work by stimulating beta-2 adrenergic receptors on the smooth muscle cells in the airways.

When these receptors are activated, the muscles relax, leading to dilated airways and improved airflow.

Beta-2 agonists are divided into two categories:

  • Short-acting beta-2 agonists (SABAs): These provide quick relief from acute respiratory symptoms and are commonly used as rescue inhalers. Examples include:
    • Albuterol
    • Levalbuterol
    • Metaproterenol
    • Pirbuterol
    • Terbutaline
  • Long-acting beta-2 agonists (LABAs): These are used for long-term control of symptoms and are not intended for immediate relief. They help to maintain open airways over an extended period, typically 12 hours or more. Examples include:
    • Arformoterol
    • Formoterol
    • Indacaterol
    • Olodaterol
    • Salmeterol


Anticholinergics target the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the constriction of the airways. These medications block acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that causes the airways to constrict.

By inhibiting acetylcholine, anticholinergics prevent constriction and help to open up the airways.

The most common types of Anticholinergics include:

  • Ipratropium bromide
  • Aclidinium bromide
  • Glycopyrrolate bromide
  • Tiotropium bromide
  • Umeclidinium bromide


Methylxanthines are a class of bronchodilators that include medications such as theophylline. These drugs work by inhibiting the enzyme phosphodiesterase, leading to an increase in cyclic AMP within smooth muscle cells.

This increase helps relax the muscles around the airways, thereby improving airflow.

Due to their narrow therapeutic window and potential side effects, methylxanthines are generally used as a second-line treatment, especially in patients with severe asthma or COPD. Regular blood monitoring is often required to ensure safe drug levels in the bloodstream.

The most common types of Methylxanthines include:

  • Theophylline
  • Aminophylline
  • Theobromine
  • Caffeine

Bronchodilator Side Effects

Bronchodilators are generally safe when used as directed, but they can have side effects, particularly if overused or misused. The side effects can vary depending on the type of bronchodilator and the delivery method (inhaler, nebulizer, oral, or intravenous).

Here are some common side effects associated with different types of bronchodilators:

Beta-2 Agonists

  • Tremors: Especially common in the hands.
  • Heart Palpitations: Patients may feel their heart beating rapidly or irregularly.
  • Nervousness or Anxiety: Some individuals may feel unusually nervous or anxious.
  • Headache: A common side effect that varies in intensity.
  • Muscle Cramps: Muscle pains or spasms can occur.
  • Increased Heart Rate: This is due to the stimulating effect on the heart.
  • Insomnia: Difficulty sleeping can occur, especially if taken late in the day.


  • Dry Mouth: Reduced saliva production, leading to a sensation of dryness in the mouth.
  • Blurred Vision: Temporary visual disturbances.
  • Urinary Retention: Difficulty in urinating, a more common side effect in older males with prostate problems.
  • Constipation: Reduced bowel movements.
  • Dizziness: Can occur, particularly when standing up quickly.


  • Nausea and Vomiting: Can occur, especially if the blood levels of the drug are too high.
  • Diarrhea: Some patients may experience gastrointestinal upset.
  • Headaches: Can be frequent and sometimes severe.
  • Insomnia: Due to the stimulatory effects of the drug.
  • Irregular Heartbeats: Can occur, especially at higher doses.
  • Seizures: In extreme cases, especially if drug levels become too high.

Note: Patients should report any persistent or severe side effects to their healthcare provider, as adjustments to the medication or its dosage might be necessary.

Bronchodilator Practice Questions

1. What is the definition of a bronchodilator?
A bronchodilator is a drug used to increase the lumen of the airways by relaxing the bronchial muscle spasms (bronchospasm), which are often triggered by disease or irritation.

2. What are the three types of bronchodilators?
Short-acting beta-2 receptor agonists, xanthines, and anti-muscarinic (anticholinergic) agents.

3. How do bronchodilators work on the body?
They relax smooth muscle tissue, reduce hyperinflation, and reduce perceived breathlessness.

4. What is the purpose of using bronchodilators?
To improve the normal response at the beta-2 receptor site, leading to bronchodilation.

5. Which adrenergic agent is considered a catecholamine?

6. What is the general effect of sympatholytics on the nervous system?
They block or slow the effects of the sympathetic nervous system.

7. What is the drug name ‘albuterol’ classified as?
Generic name

8. Which of the following is not a mechanism of bronchoconstriction?
Embolism (clot) formation, as it affects perfusion but not the integrity of the airways.

9. By which mechanism do methylxanthines cause bronchodilation?
By inhibiting phosphodiesterase, increasing levels of cyclic AMP, and producing bronchodilation.

10. Where is norepinephrine found in the sympathetic system?
At the postganglionic neuron.

11. In which situations would racemic epinephrine not be indicated?
Acute bronchospasm.

12. What would the “perfect” sympathomimetic bronchodilator target?
β2 receptors

13. Which drug should be administered for an acute exacerbation of asthma?

14. What is the standard adult dose for nebulized albuterol?
2.5 mg

15. What is the therapeutic range for theophylline?
5-15 mcg/mL

16. What device is used to administer tiotropium bromide?

17. What are some brand names for bronchodilators with their corresponding drug names?
Salmeterol: Serevent, Formoterol: Foradil, Tiotropium Bromide: Spiriva, DuoNeb: Albuterol and Ipratropium Bromide, Albuterol: Proventil, Ipratropium Bromide: Atrovent.

18. Which long-acting medication would you recommend for an asthmatic patient with early morning shortness of breath?

19. Which drugs are most useful in treating an acute asthma attack?
Albuterol, Ipratropium Bromide, and Levalbuterol

20. What is the advantage of longer amine chains in the development of β-2 agonists?
They improve β-2 selectivity.

21. Which of the following directly causes bronchodilation?

22. Which bronchodilator is considered a long-acting beta agonist?
Salmeterol (Serevent)

23. Duoneb contains which medications?
Ipratropium bromide and albuterol

24. What can be used to monitor the effectiveness of bronchodilator therapy?
PEFR, FEV1, and a decrease in the use of accessory muscles.

25. Which long-acting medications would you recommend for a COPD patient currently using short-acting MDIs?
Serevent and Spiriva

26. How should a patient receiving theophylline be monitored?
Monitor blood levels to ensure therapeutic levels and avoid toxic levels.

27. What are the three major drug groups for asthma treatment?
Bronchodilators, symptom controllers, and prophylactics (anti-asthma) drugs.

28. What group do bronchodilators belong to?
Beta-2 agonists

29. What type of drug does not elicit a response when it binds to a receptor?
An antagonist.

30. How does an agonist function compared to an antagonist?
An agonist activates the receptor and causes a greater response, whereas an antagonist can bind to the receptor site but does not cause activation.

31. What classification of medication is albuterol?
Sympathomimetic; albuterol mimics the action of the sympathetic system.

32. What physiological effects do bronchodilators cause on the body?
Increased bronchodilation, increased vasodilation, increased blood supply, and increased uterine relaxation.

33. What are the adverse reactions of beta-2 agonists?
Increased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, vascular headaches, tremor, palpitations, and hypokalemia.

34. What are two types of bronchodilators?
Short-acting beta-agonists (SABA) and long-acting beta-agonists (LABA).

35. What are SABAs used for?
As a short-acting bronchodilator agonist that provides relief.

36. What are LABAs used for?
As a long-acting bronchodilator agonist that acts as a symptom controller.

37. What are the characteristics of SABAs?
Provides acute bronchodilation, relief for 4-6 hours, and has a rapid onset of 5-15 minutes.

38. What is the function of LABAs?
They have a long duration of action (14 hours), a slow onset, and are not used acutely.

39. What precautions should be taken when using salbutamol?
Avoid overuse as it can lead to decreased beta-2 stimulation, resulting in reduced bronchodilation and increased beta-1 stimulation: increased heart rate, anxiety, and tremors.

40. What is the use of xanthine derivatives?
They are used in COPD and as a third-line treatment for asthma (e.g., Theophylline).

41. What cautions are associated with Theophylline?
It has a varied half-life depending on age and lifestyle, has many interactions, and can cause toxicity.

42. How are xanthines administered?
Orally or via intravenous infusion.

43. What is the mechanism of action of xanthine derivatives?
They act via CNS stimulation to increase levels of cyclic AMP, causing bronchodilation.

44. What are the adverse reactions of xanthine derivatives?
Dizziness, headaches, heartburn, loss of appetite, and nervousness.

45. What is another name for an anticholinergic bronchodilator?
An anti-muscarinic antagonist.

46. What are two types of anticholinergic bronchodilators?
Short-acting muscarinic antagonists (SAMA) and long-acting muscarinic antagonists (LAMA).

47. What is SAMA?
Short-acting, symptom controller (e,g,. Ipratropium).

48. What is LAMA?
Long-acting preventer (e.g., Tiotropium).

49. What is the mechanism of action of anticholinergic bronchodilators?
They block the parasympathetic stimulation (acetylcholine) of the vagus nerve to relax smooth muscle and cause bronchodilation.

50. What are the adverse reactions of anticholinergic bronchodilators?
Dry mouth, metallic taste, nausea, headache, and tachycardia.

51. Why are beta-2 agonists inhaled?
To avoid systemic side effects such as tachycardia, palpitations, and tremors.

52. Why are anticholinergic bronchodilators used?
They are primarily used for COPD as they mainly act on the large airways.

53. What is one of the most important categories of drugs used in respiratory care?

54. What are Xanthine agents?
Xanthine agents interfere with the action of phosphodiesterase, increasing cyclic AMP (cAMP), leading to bronchodilation.

55. What medication would you administer for upper airway swelling in an emergency room?
Racemic epinephrine

56. What is Metaproterenol?
Metaproterenol is a short-acting bronchodilator (SABA) with brand names like Alupent and Metaprel. It targets Beta 2 and Beta 1 receptors and is administered as a solution, tablet, or syrup.

57. What is Albuterol?
Albuterol is a short-acting bronchodilator that targets Beta 2 and Beta 1 receptors. It is available under brands such as Proventil, Ventolin, and ProAir. It is administered via a nebulizer or MDI and has effects lasting 5-8 hours.

58. What is Levalbuterol?
Levalbuterol is a short-acting bronchodilator and is available as Xopenex and Xopenex HFA. It targets Beta 2 and Beta 1 receptors (with S-isomer removed) and is administered via nebulizer or MDI.

59. What is Pirbuterol?
Pirbuterol was a short-acting bronchodilator under the brand Maxair, discontinued in 2013 due to the prohibition of CFCs as propellants.

60. Can you use two long-acting bronchodilators at the same time?
No, do not use two long-acting bronchodilators (LABA) at the same time. However, a short-acting bronchodilator (SABA) may be used concurrently with a LABA.

61. What are Salmeterol, Formoterol, Arformoterol, Indacaterol, Olodaterol, and Vilanterol?
These are all long-acting bronchodilators with varying onset, peak, and duration times, each with a preference for Beta 2 receptors. They are used for long-term maintenance and prevention of bronchospasm, and not indicated for acute treatment.

62. What type of drugs are adrenergic bronchodilators?
They are sympathomimetic drugs.

63. What is the mode of action of adrenergic bronchodilators?
They relax bronchial smooth muscle tissue of the airways by acting on the beta2 receptors of the autonomic nervous system.

64. Where do adrenergic medications attach?
They attach to the neuroeffector junction on the bronchial smooth muscle, causing the release of adenyl cyclase into the cell.

65. What is the relationship between the chemical shape of medication and its side effects?
The more specific the chemical shape of the medication, the less side effects it will produce.

66. What are the three receptor types in the autonomic nervous system that affect the respiratory system?
Alpha, Beta 1, and Beta 2

67. Where are the beta 2 receptors embedded?
They are embedded in the airway smooth muscle.

68. Where are the beta 1 receptors located?
They are located in the heart and peripheral blood vessels.

69. Where are the alpha receptors located?
On the peripheral vasculature of the upper airway.

70. What is the duration of a short-acting bronchodilator?
3-6 hours, with an onset of action of 2-8 minutes.

71. What is the duration of long-acting bronchodilators?
12-24 hours, with an onset of action of 15-30 minutes.

72. How do beta-adrenergic agents help improve airflow?
By directly relaxing the bronchial smooth muscle and increasing mucociliary clearance and pulmonary vasodilation.

73. What diseases can benefit from bronchodilators?
Reversible airflow obstructive diseases, acute and chronic asthma, exercise-induced asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, bronchiectasis, and cystic fibrosis.

74. What are the similarities between albuterol and levalbuterol?
Both are adrenergic bronchodilators, both are beta-2-specific, both are SABAs, and both are synthetic.

75. What are the clinical differences between albuterol and levalbuterol?
Levalbuterol causes less incidence of tremors, has a higher peak effect on FEV1, and lasts 8 hours, while albuterol lasts 3-4 hours.

76. What are the differences in cost between albuterol and levalbuterol?
Albuterol is much less expensive than levalbuterol.

77. What are the differences in the chemical makeup between albuterol and levalbuterol?
Levalbuterol is available as the single R-isomer of albuterol, while albuterol is comprised of both the R-isomer and S-isomer.

78. What are some SABA medications?
Albuterol, levalbuterol, terbutaline, bitolterol, metaproterenol, pirbuterol.

79. What are some LABA medications?
Salmeterol, formoterol, arformoterol, olodaterol, indacaterol.

80. What does the cholinergic activity of the autonomic nervous system produce?
It produces the normal vagally mediated “tone” of the airways within the lungs by acetylcholine stimulating the receptor site on the bronchial smooth muscle to maintain a certain level of constriction or size.

81. What happens if the dosage of acetylcholine is increased?
The greater the stimulation, the more constriction of the airway diameter.

82. What has better effects on COPD, anticholinergic bronchodilators or beta-adrenergic?
Anticholinergic bronchodilators.

83. How do anticholinergic bronchodilators function?
They block the acetylcholine at the receptor site of the bronchial smooth muscle, thereby relaxing the “tone” of the airway.

84. What is the duration of a short-acting anticholinergic?
It has an onset of action of about 1-5 minutes with a duration of 4-8 hours.

85. What is the duration of a long-acting anticholinergic?
Long-acting agents have an onset of 30 minutes and a duration of 24 hours.

86. What are the side effects of anticholinergics?
Dry mouth and very rarely tachycardia or blurred vision.

87. What are some long-acting anticholinergic medications?
Umeclidinium, aclidinium, and tiotropium bromide.

88. What is the effectiveness of aerosol therapy dependent upon?
The proper device selection and correct technique.

89. What is the primary action of beta-2 adrenergic agonists in the treatment of asthma?
Beta-2 adrenergic agonists primarily stimulate beta-2 receptors, leading to the relaxation of bronchial smooth muscles and opening of the airways.

90. How do corticosteroids complement the action of bronchodilators in asthma management?
Corticosteroids reduce inflammation in the airways, complementing the bronchodilation effect by improving overall airway function and reducing the frequency of asthma exacerbations.

91. What is the role of magnesium sulfate in severe asthma attacks?
Magnesium sulfate is used as a bronchodilator for severe asthma attacks due to its ability to relax smooth muscle in the airways, potentially improving breathing in acute settings.

92. What is the benefit of using a spacer with an inhaler?
Using a spacer with an inhaler helps deliver medication more effectively to the lungs by reducing the amount of medicine that lands in the mouth and throat, increasing the dosage that reaches the airways.

93. What is the mechanism of action for beta-2 agonists in bronchodilation?
Beta-2 agonists work by binding to beta-2 adrenergic receptors on airway smooth muscle cells, leading to activation of adenyl cyclase and increased production of cyclic AMP, which relaxes the muscles and opens the airways.

94. How does tolerance to beta-2 agonists affect asthma treatment?
Tolerance to beta-2 agonists can reduce their effectiveness over time, requiring adjustments in dosage or the addition of other medications to maintain asthma control.

95. What are the risks of using beta-2 agonists in patients with cardiovascular diseases?
Beta-2 agonists can cause side effects such as tachycardia and palpitations, which may exacerbate underlying cardiovascular conditions like arrhythmias or ischemic heart disease.

96. Why are long-acting beta agonists (LABAs) not used as monotherapy in asthma?
LABAs are not used as monotherapy in asthma because they do not address inflammation, a key component of asthma pathology. Using them alone can increase the risk of asthma-related deaths, so they are always prescribed in combination with inhaled corticosteroids.

97. What is the difference between selective and non-selective beta agonists?
Selective beta agonists specifically target beta-2 adrenergic receptors in the lungs, minimizing cardiovascular side effects. Non-selective beta-agonists, however, can stimulate both beta-1 and beta-2 receptors, leading to more systemic effects, including those on the heart.

98. What is the advantage of using nebulized bronchodilators over inhalers in certain patients?
Nebulized bronchodilators are often used for patients who have difficulty using inhalers due to severe respiratory distress or coordination issues, as nebulizers deliver the medication in a mist form that is easier to inhale deeply into the lungs.

99. How do beta-2 agonists influence potassium levels in the bloodstream?
Beta-2 agonists can cause a temporary shift of potassium from the bloodstream into cells, potentially leading to hypokalemia, especially in the context of high doses or frequent use.

100. What are the guidelines for using bronchodilators during acute exacerbations of COPD?
During acute exacerbations of COPD, bronchodilators are used aggressively to relieve symptoms and improve airflow. Both short-acting beta-2 agonists and anticholinergics are often used in combination to maximize bronchodilation and facilitate better breathing.

Final Thoughts

Bronchodilators are vital in treating respiratory diseases, offering significant relief from symptoms and improving the quality of life for sufferers of conditions like asthma and COPD.

However, their use must be carefully managed to avoid potential side effects and ensure optimal efficacy.

Healthcare providers play a crucial role in determining the appropriate type and dosage of bronchodilator medications, balancing immediate relief with long-term management.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


  • Almadhoun K, Sharma S. Bronchodilators. [Updated 2023 Apr 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024.

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