Albuterol is a bronchodilator approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat bronchospasm (a narrowing of the airways) in children and adults. Albuterol is available by prescription and may be prescribed to treat coughing and shortness of breath in patients with cystic fibrosis (CF). However, it does not treat CF and is used only to ease breathing problems in combination with other medications.

How albuterol works

CF is a heritable disease caused by mutations in the CFTR gene. This results in abnormal or no CFTR protein being made, which results in thick, sticky mucus building up within organs. This is especially problematic in the lungs as the thick mucus makes breathing difficult, as well as making patients more susceptible to infections.

Albuterol is taken using a nebulizer or metered dose inhaler. The medication binds to a protein receptor called the beta-2-adrenergic receptor in the smooth muscles of the airways, activating the receptor and causing the smooth muscle to relax, which opens the airways.

Albuterol in clinical trials for CF

Although bronchodilators are commonly used in CF, there have been only a few long-term studies to evaluate the chronic effects of bronchodilators including albuterol to treat the condition.

A study published in the Respiratory Care Journal reviewed nine clinical trials conducted between 1970 and 2014. The studies were small and  included a total of 379 patients. A number of agents were tested, including albuterol. The studies did not report any benefit of the studied agents on lung function, expectoration, or atelectasis (collapse of the small sacs or alveoli that compose the lungs). Little effect was seen in the volume, weight, or viscosity of the sputum. Adverse side effects were not consistently reported between trials.

The authors concluded more research is needed to determine whether there is any benefit to albuterol treatment in CF.

Other information

Albuterol may cause side effects including headache, dizziness, insomnia, cough, hoarseness, sore throat, mild nausea, dry mouth, anxiety, muscle pain, or diarrhea.

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