Ipratropium bromide versus short acting beta-2 agonists for stable chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

This review looks at studies that compare the regular use for at least four weeks of different types of inhaled short-acting bronchodilator medication in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, or emphysema/chronic bronchitis). There were eleven trials included. There were no major differences seen between the responses to ipratropium and salbutamol, or the combination. Where there were benefits, they were small and would not support a general recommendation for the use of ipratropium bromide or a combination with beta-2 agonist over a beta-2 agonist alone in COPD. People with COPD could use the short-acting bronchodilator that gives them the most improvement in their symptoms.

Authors' conclusions: 

The available data from the trials included in this review suggest that the advantage of regular long term use of ipratropium alone or in combination with a short-acting beta-2 agonist or over a beta-2 agonist alone are small, if the aim is to improve lung function, symptoms and exercise tolerance. Until further data are available, the strategy of providing a short-acting beta-2 agonist on a PRN basis, and then either continuing with the short-acting beta-2 agonist regularly or conducting an "n of 1" trial of regular beta-2 agonist or regular anticholinergic to determine the treatment that gives the best relief of symptoms (and continuing with it), would seem cost effective. This strategy does need formal evaluation. Patient preference is also important, as is the relative importance of avoiding the use of systemic corticosteroids.

Read the full abstract...

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a condition associated with high morbidity, mortality and cost to the community. Patients often report symptomatic improvement with short-acting beta-2 agonists (SABA) and anticholinergic bronchodilator medications, and both are recommended in COPD guidelines. These medications have different mechanisms of action and therefore could have an additive effect when combined.


To compare the relative efficacy and safety of regular long term use (at least four weeks) of ipratropium bromide and short- acting beta-2 agonist therapy in patients with stable COPD.

Search strategy: 

The Cochrane Airways Group Specialised Register of Trials was searched. Bibliographies were checked to identify relevant cross-references. Drug companies were contacted for relevant trial data. The searches are current to July 2008.

Selection criteria: 

All randomised controlled trials comparing at least 4 weeks of treatment with an anticholinergic agent (ipratropium bromide) alone or in combination with a beta-2 agonist (short acting) versus the beta-2 agonist alone, delivered via metered dose inhaler or nebuliser, in non-asthmatic adult subjects with stable COPD.

Data collection and analysis: 

Data extraction and study quality assessment was performed independently by three reviewers. Authors of studies and relevant manufacturers were contacted if data were missing.

Main results: 

Eleven studies (3912 participants) met the inclusion criteria of the review. Small benefits of ipratropium over a short-acting beta-2 agonist were demonstrated on lung function outcomes. There were small benefits in favour of ipratropium on quality of life (HRQL), as well as a reduction in the requirement for oral steroids. Combination therapy with ipratropium plus a short-acting beta-2 agonist conferred benefits over a short-acting beta-2 agonist alone in terms of post-bronchodilator lung function. There was no significant benefit of combination therapy in subjective improvements in HRQL, but again there was a reduction in the requirement for oral steroids.