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What Are Respiratory Stimulants?

By Jacquelyn Gilchrist
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Respiratory stimulants are drugs that are prescribed to aid in a patient's breathing. Different types of respiratory stimulants include doxapram and theophylline, which work by acting on the neurotransmitters in the brain to encourage respiration and increase the volume of air that a patient inhales and exhales. The doctor may prescribe these types of medications along with an artificial breathing machine, such as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.

A diverse range of medical conditions may benefit from respiratory stimulants. Patients with asthma, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis may get relief from symptoms like shortness of breath and wheezing. Theophylline in particular may work to alleviate these symptoms, because it helps relax and open up the body's air passages. Doxapram can also treat chronic lung diseases, but it can also help to stimulate breathing in patients who have overdosed on certain medications, and those recovering from a surgery.

Theophylline is typically prescribed for use on an ongoing basis, and it is available in tablets or syrups to be ingested orally. Patients should follow all dosage instructions carefully. For example, a doctor may direct them to take the dose on an empty stomach or with food, depending on the specific form of the drug. These stimulants will treat symptoms of lung diseases, but they cannot cure the condition, so patients should continue to take their medication even if they begin to feel better.

Since doxapram is typically used in a hospital setting, a health care professional will likely administer it because the stimulant is only available in the form of an injection. Health care workers should avoid using this drug in children younger than 12 years whenever possible.

Patients taking respiratory stimulants should always disclose their full medical history to avoid adverse reactions. Depending on the specific drug that is used, certain medical conditions or other medications may preclude a person from taking it. For example, the use of doxapram may be contraindicated in patients with a recent chest or head injury, a history of heart problems, or an asthma attack. Respiratory stimulants like theophylline should not be used in patients with a seizure disorder, high blood pressure, or a history of alcohol abuse. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should always discuss the potential risks with their doctors before taking a new medication.

Respiratory stimulants may also cause some side effects, which can vary depending on the specific drug that is used. Some side effects may include dizziness, nausea, and headache. More severe side effects that require urgent medical attention may include an irregular or rapid heartbeat, seizures, or fainting. Patients have also reported muscle spasms, loss of bladder control, and hyperactivity.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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