Hypoxia, Arterial pH and Theophylline Disposition

Monique Richer, Y. W.Francis Lam

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Theophylline is a bronchodilator used extensively in the management of obstructive pulmonary disease. Factors implicated in altered theophylline clearance include smoking, age, concomitant drug intake, liver disease and left ventricular heart failure. However, evidence now suggests that theophylline clearance may be altered by changes in severity of the pulmonary obstruction, hypoxia and variation in arterial pH. The in vitro disposition of theophylline has been evaluated in isolated rat livers and mouse hepatocytes. In vivo studies have assessed the metabolism of theophylline under hypoxia in rats, rabbits and dogs. In isolated mouse hepatocytes and rat livers, low oxygen concentrations resulted in higher theophylline concentrations, a longer elimination half-life and a decrease in the production of the metabolite 1,3-dimethyl uric acid, suggesting impaired metabolism of theophylline. In rabbits, hypoxia, hypercapnia and respiratory acidosis decreased total body clearance and increased plasma theophylline concentrations. On the other hand, experiments involving dogs showed no significant changes in theophylline concentrations or pharmacokinetic parameters with hypoxia. At present, animal studies remain inconclusive. This can be attributed to the use of different animal models and variations in study methodology, including the extent and duration of hypoxia and acidaemia, concurrent acid-base disorders such as hypercapnia, as well as the severity of pulmonary obstruction. Human studies assessing alterations in theophylline disposition secondary to the hypoxia present in pulmonary disease are few and include mostly case reports and observational studies. There is evidence suggesting decreased theophylline clearance and protein binding during acute illness and some consensus can be achieved using case reports and controlled studies. There is additional evidence that drug clearance decreases with age and that elderly patients may have a decreased theophylline clearance at baseline. However, the most obvious markers appear to be the severity of pulmonary disease and the rate of change in the patient’s condition. Caution should be exercised when administering theophylline to elderly patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease presenting with acute exacerbations of a concomitant respiratory illness, as these patients appear to be most likely to exhibit altered theophylline metabolism. Therefore, they would be at increased risk for toxicity should conventional dosages be used during an acute respiratory event.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)283-299
Number of pages17
JournalClinical Pharmacokinetics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1993

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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