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.