Inotropes, vasopressors and other vasoactive agents

Reviewed and revised 9 September 2016


Vasoactive agents include the following:

  • inotropes are agents that increase myocardial contractility (inotropy)
    — e.g. adrenaline, dobutamine, isoprenaline, ephedrine
  • vasopressors are agents that cause vasoconstriction leading to increased systemic and/or pulmonary vascular resistance (SVR, PVR)
    — e.g. noradrenaline, vasopressin, metaraminol, vasopressin, methylene blue
  • inodilators are agents with inotropic effects that also cause vasodilation leading to decreased systemic and/or pulmonary vascular resistance (SVR, PVR)
    — e.g. milrinone, levosimendan
  • some agents don’t fit these categories easily!
    — e.g. dopamine

No inotropic agents have been shown to have superiority over any others in good quality trials.

  • Use is based on cost, availability, interpretation of physiology and personal/ institutional preference.
  • More detail on each agent can be found by searching the Critical Care Compendium.
Inotrope Summary table 01
Classendogenous catecholamineendogenous catecholamineendogenous catecholaminesynthetic catecholamine
Mechanismbeta > alphaalpha > betaDA > beta > alphabeta 1 and 2
Effectsb1 -> +HR, +inotropy, +CO alpha at higher doses preserves coronary and cerebral blood flow b2 -> +vasodilation, +brochodilationa1-> +SVR +beta at higher dosesdose (mcg/kg/h) 1-5 = DAR 1+2 5-10 = betaR >10 = alphaR + aldosteroneinotropy + VO2 + myocardial work mild + HR + coronary perfusion mild - SVR mild - PVR
Pharmacokineticsonset in mins Met: COMT + MAO t/12 = mins onset in mins Met: COMT + MAO t/12 = minsonset in mins Met: COMT + MAO t/12 = minsonset in mins methylation + conjugation t/12 = mins urine + bile -> inactive metabolites
Usecardiac arrest low CO state cardiac surgeryseptic shock vasodilationnil (kids!)low CO state part of EGDT cardiac surgery
Pros$ titratable familiar available$ titratable familiar available$ titratable familiar availabletitratable familiar available
Conslactic acidosis low K, low PO4reflex bradycardia hypertension peripheral ischemia arrhythmia pulmonary vasoconstriction N&V immune dysregulation - TSH and PRL release$$ myocardial ischemia tachydysrhythmias tachyphylaxis
EvidenceAnnane 2007: vs dobtumine + norad = no difference in septic shock CAT: vs norad in septic shock = no differenceCAT: vs adrenaline in septic shock = no difference Annane 2007: with dobutamine vs adrenaline = no difference in septic shockBellomo 2000: no 'renal dose' dopamine De Backer 2010 and Patel 2010: vs norad = more tachydysrhythmias in septic shockSURVIVE: no mortality benefit vs levosimendan Annane 2007: with norad vs adrenaline = no difference in septic shock
Inotrope Summary table 02
Classendogenous peptidecalcium sensitiser (inodilator)bipyridine inodilator
MechanismV1R = vasoconstriction V2R = renal + endothelium V3R = pituitary OTR = oxytoxin type receptors modulates troponin C activates vascular ATP-dependent K channelscAMP PDE-3 inhibitor
Effectsantidiuresis + SVR + platelet aggregation + PVR - splanchnic flow inotropy - SVR - PVR +CO
Pharmacokineticspeptidases t1/2 = 10-20 minslow onset (can give loading dose) liver + renal metabolism t1/2 = 1 hour but has active metabolites effects last up to 1/52t1/2 = 2.3h renal no effect >8h
Useseptic shock (cardiac arrest}low CO statelow CO state cardiac surgery support RV
Prosfast onset/ offset (except renal effects) catecholamine resistanceOK if b-blockers catacholamine resistance faster decrease in BNP cf. dobutaminepulmonary vasodilation OK if b-blockers catacholamine resistance little +HR
Cons$$$$ pulmonary hypertension splanchnic ischaemia uterine contraction ? thrombosis $$$$$ tachycardia low BP headache not if LVOTO not if liver/ renal disease $$$ hypotension may need norad little evidence
EvidenceVASST: no benefit vs norad in septic shockSURVIVE: no mortality beneift vs dobutaminefaster weaning off bypass


From Senz and Nunnink:

These ‘textbook’ descriptions do not necessarily translate into clinical practice and effects may vary with dose and clinical status.


From Senz and Nunnink:

References and Links


  • Search the CCC for individual agents.

Journal articles

  • Bangash MN, Kong ML, Pearse RM. Use of inotropes and vasopressor agents in critically ill patients. Br J Pharmacol. 2012 Apr;165(7):2015-33. PMC3413841.
  • Evans N. Which inotrope for which baby? Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed. 2006 May;91(3):F213-20. PMC2672709.
  • Gillies M, Bellomo R, Doolan L, Buxton B. Bench-to-bedside review: Inotropic drug therapy after adult cardiac surgery — a systematic literature review. Crit Care. 2005 Jun;9(3):266-79. PMC1175868.
  • Hollenberg SM. Vasoactive drugs in circulatory shock. American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine. 183(7):847-55. 2011. [pubmed]
  • Hollenberg SM. Inotrope and vasopressor therapy of septic shock. Critical care clinics. 25(4):781-802, ix. 2009. [pubmed]
  • Jentzer JC, Coons JC, Link CB, Schmidhofer M. Pharmacotherapy update on the use of vasopressors and inotropes in the intensive care unit. Journal of cardiovascular pharmacology and therapeutics. 20(3):249-60. 2015. [pubmed]
  • Overgaard CB, Dzavík V. Inotropes and vasopressors: review of physiology and clinical use in cardiovascular disease. Circulation. 2008 Sep 2;118(10):1047-56. PMID: 18765387. [Free Full Text]
  • Senz A, Nunnink L. Review article: inotrope and vasopressor use in the emergency department. Emerg Med Australas. 2009 Oct;21(5):342-51. PMID: 19694785. [Free Full Text]
  • Vasu TS, Cavallazzi R, Hirani A, Kaplan G, Leiby B, Marik PE. Norepinephrine or dopamine for septic shock: systematic review of randomized clinical trials. J Intensive Care Med. 2012 May-Jun;27(3):172-8. PMID: 21436167.

FOAM and web resources

CCC 700 6

Critical Care


Chris is an Intensivist and ECMO specialist at the Alfred ICU in Melbourne. He is also a Clinical Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University. He is a co-founder of the Australia and New Zealand Clinician Educator Network (ANZCEN) and is the Lead for the ANZCEN Clinician Educator Incubator programme. He is on the Board of Directors for the Intensive Care Foundation and is a First Part Examiner for the College of Intensive Care Medicine. He is an internationally recognised Clinician Educator with a passion for helping clinicians learn and for improving the clinical performance of individuals and collectives.

After finishing his medical degree at the University of Auckland, he continued post-graduate training in New Zealand as well as Australia’s Northern Territory, Perth and Melbourne. He has completed fellowship training in both intensive care medicine and emergency medicine, as well as post-graduate training in biochemistry, clinical toxicology, clinical epidemiology, and health professional education.

He is actively involved in in using translational simulation to improve patient care and the design of processes and systems at Alfred Health. He coordinates the Alfred ICU’s education and simulation programmes and runs the unit’s education website, INTENSIVE.  He created the ‘Critically Ill Airway’ course and teaches on numerous courses around the world. He is one of the founders of the FOAM movement (Free Open-Access Medical education) and is co-creator of litfl.com, the RAGE podcast, the Resuscitology course, and the SMACC conference.

His one great achievement is being the father of three amazing children.

On Twitter, he is @precordialthump.

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