Return Visit: A Shot in the Arm

All the talk about the high cost of Epi-Pens made me think about how much we have relied on cheap, generic epinephrine in this country, and how much respect my Swedish mentors had for that drug.

Back in 2009 I wrote a post about epinephrine, prompted by the high cost of my wife’s albuterol inhaler. Of course, that doesn’t seem all that expensive now, compared to the latest in a long series of price shocks. So my last sentence didn’t accurately foretell the future.

Here is my post from January 2009:

Three asthma inhalers for my wife cost us $90 in copayments this week. Not long ago, generic albuterol inhalers were about seven dollars each. The main reason for the price increase is the new U.S. law that banned the use of fluorocarbons in prescription asthma inhalers this winter. The old-fashioned inhalers are harmful to the ozone layer. This new law prompted the development of novel, brand name, delivery systems, which drove up the cost to levels many of my patients have trouble affording. It does seem ironic that people around here often have remote starters for their gas-guzzling, high-polluting Sport Utility Vehicles, so they don’t have to drive to work in a cold car, but we make our asthmatics help take care of the environment by giving up their inexpensive inhalers for newer, more expensive and not necessarily better devices.

As far as I know, you can still buy old-technology, ozone-depleting inhalers with adrenaline (epinephrine) over the counter for under $10. By the way, we use the name epinephrine in the U.S. because somebody (Parke-Davis) patented the name Adrenalin in 1900 (without the “e”, but still similar enough to force the introduction of a new generic name, epinephrine, different from what the rest of the world uses).

I remember when I was a resident in Sweden in 1981, we had asthma medicines that were years ahead of the American products. We used so-called beta-2 selective inhalers and injectables like terbutaline (Bricanyl), which had fewer side effects, as they acted mostly on the lungs without stimulating the heart the way adrenaline does. In the U.S., adrenaline (epinephrine) in injectable form is commonly used for asthma attacks and allergic reactions. It is even available in auto-injectors for personal use by allergy sufferers.

My Swedish teachers and mentors had little or no experience with adrenaline. In fact, one night in a community hospital where I worked, we had an asthmatic in the emergency room with a stubborn attack, and the senior physician decided to use straight adrenaline since the patient wasn’t responding to injections of terbutaline. We actually transferred the patient to the intensive care unit before injecting the adrenaline, more because of our fear of side efecs from the drug than fear of respiratory failure from the asthma attack.

A couple of years later, new here in town, I met Elwood “Woody” Black.

Woody Black was almost seventy when I met him, and he lived for a good many more years in spite if his bad asthma. The first day I met him, he pulled a beat-up metal case from his shirt pocket with an ancient syringe, a well used needle and a couple of vials of adrenaline. When his asthma kicked in, he would roll up his sleeve and give himself a shot in the arm with adrenaline. It was with great trepidation I agreed to refill his prescription, but he had obviously used it many times without coming to harm.

Driving home from the pharmacy with three inhalers worth about $150, I wondered if generic injectable adrenaline might see a resurgence in this country…

2 Responses to “Return Visit: A Shot in the Arm”


  1. 1 susancarolcampbell September 1, 2016 at 12:35 am

    Very cool story…. You have to admire the Woody Blacks of the world!

  2. 2 Lisa September 1, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    I don’t think that it will see much of a resurgence. I sat at a table and heard the mother of an asthmatic child say she could never give her child a shot like that. I felt very grateful that her child isn’t a diabetic.


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