My Experience With Theophylline

I was first introduced to theophylline in 1976. My memory of it was a horrible tasting pink syrup. Mom stored it in the bathroom medicine cabinet. We ventured in their together during asthma attacks. She scooped it onto a teaspoon and fed it to me. I cringed mightily while it passed over my tongue. Then I waited for the breathing relief.

Sometimes my doctor wanted me to take it every day. So, mom moved it to the kitchen cupboard. After she put bread in the toaster, she took out that yucky medicine.

The medicine was called Tedral. The main ingredient was theophylline. It’s was used as a bronchodilator. It was a top-line asthma medicine during the 1970s and 80s. Tedral and Brocedron were two medicines I was prescribed. They were available over the counter. There were various other similar products.

Tedral also contained ephedrine and phenobarbital. Ephedrine was also a bronchodilator. It’s also a stimulant. Theophylline is a white crystalline substance. It was isolated in tea leaves in 1888. It’s a member of the methylxanthine family of plants, which also includes coffee.

Caffeine-like impact

Tea and coffee both contain caffeine. When caffeine is metabolized, a small amount of theophylline is produced. So, this is why coffee is also considered a mild bronchodilator. But, theophylline is a much stronger bronchodilator.

Coffee was sometimes prescribed as an asthma remedy during the 19th century. Theophylline was introduced to the medical community in 1922. It was recognized as an asthma remedy during the 1940s. But it was only available as an IV. It was prescribed for home use during the 1950s.

Interestingly, theophylline remains one of the few medicines researchers still don’t know how it works. Sure, it has something to do with c-amp. They know it opens airways. But they aren’t sure how. I will spare you the details, at least for now.

Theophylline became a top-line medicine for asthma in the 1970s. It was available on drug store shelves. Usually, it was one component in asthma pills or elixirs, like Tedral and Bronchedron. It helped many asthmatics obtain good asthma control. It helped me a lot.

But, the problem is it was also, like coffee and ephedrine, a stimulant. It increased your mental acuity. It kept you awake. So, sleep was a problem.

And this was, I think, why phenobarbital was an ingredient of Tedral. It was a sedative. But, a problem is phenobarbital also caused hallucinations. So, while Tedral worked great for asthma, the side effects were horrible. I hated the taste. I hated the side effects.

So, after I all but begged him, my doctor switched me to Theovent in 1980. This was not over-the-counter. A few years later, he switched me to Theo-Dur. This was a slow-release theophylline. It was supposed to last longer and work better. It did. I stayed on it until 2007.

So, you know how you can get addicted to caffeine? Well, theophylline is no different. So, while on Tedral, I only took it during hay fever season. After the season was over, my doctor would have me quit taking it. So, I’d get depressed. As a bonus, the asthma would come back.

So, it was a bonus when I was switched to Theovent and later Theo-Dur. I took it year-round. A little white pill every day. By 1985, I was taking it three times a day. By 2000, I was taking 300 mg four times a day. So, as you can see, you grew tolerant of it. You require higher doses. You could not get off it.

Yuck! But that's not all.

It also irritated my stomach. It caused me to have ulcers. When I forgot a dose, I’d have severe asthma attacks. I’d take a theophylline, and these attacks would subside. But, it took 20 minutes for the relief to come. So, I figured I would never get off this medicine. I was chronically dependent on it. It was a vicious cycle.

Changes:Theophylline to Advair - then to now

In 2003, I went to Grand Rapids to visit my brother. I forgot my theophylline. I had a horrible asthma attack. I went to a random pharmacy and the pharmacist gave me a theophylline pill. Could you imagine that happening today? That pharmacist saved my life. Or, at least saved me from an ER visit. My breath came back within 20 minutes.

But, then came along modern asthma medicine. My doctor prescribed Advair in 2000. In 2004, I went to visit my brother in Detroit and forgot my theophylline. But, this time I did not have an asthma attack.

So, I talked to my doctor about this. We decided the Advair may be all I needed. So, over the ensuing year, I gradually weaned myself off theophylline. It has now been ten years since I took that little white pill. A testament, of sorts, of how asthma medicine has improved just in my short lifespan.

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