If you suffer from asthma, you’re among the 25 million Americans who also have this chronic, lifelong condition. Asthma affects the airways of the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe.
Most asthma sufferers are aware of their triggers and can use long-acting bronchodilators to help them manage their symptoms.
However, asthma attacks and symptoms can also come on unexpectedly.
Nearly 24.3% of all adults and 18.7 % of all children self-reported active asthma and relied on quick-relief rescue medications to control their asthma in the past three months.
This is when a rescue inhaler is needed. The fast-acting medicine can work quickly to prevent serious health complications.
In this article, I will explain what a rescue inhaler is, the two different types of inhalers, how to use a rescue inhaler, as well as when to seek medical assistance for asthma.
What is a Rescue Inhaler?
For most, rescue inhalers (or bronchodilators) are prescribed medications that come in a metered dose. These are referred to as metered dose inhalers (MDIs), as they have a dose counter.
During an asthma attack, your airways swell and produce extra mucus. Your rescue inhaler can help quickly relax muscle bands that tighten around your airways, making it easier to breathe.
As the medicine enters your lungs, it dilates your airways and creates space for mucus to be coughed up more easily.
Using a special jet nebulizer, rescue inhalers turn the liquid medication within the canister into a mist that is then inhaled. Inhalers should be used as soon as a person feels their asthma is beginning to flare up.
As their name suggests, a rescue inhaler works to effectively “rescue” a person from a sudden onset of asthma symptoms or attack.
Short vs Long-Acting Bronchodilators
If you suffer from ongoing asthma issues, your doctor may prescribe you short-acting or long-acting beta-antagonists commonly referred to as rescue inhalers.
These inhalers offer more immediate relief than long-acting bronchodilators which help control recurring asthma symptoms or attacks.
Short-acting beta 2-agonists (also called SABAs) relieve or stop asthma symptoms. These are typically taken to stop an asthma attack.
Often referred to as “rescue medicine,” this inhaler is used to treat sudden, severe, and/or new asthma symptoms as they are fast-acting.
If you are reaching for your short-acting bronchodilator more than twice a week, it is advised you speak with your doctor. More than likely, they will prescribe a long-acting bronchodilator.
You can find short-acting bronchodilators in the following forms:
- Albuterol (Proventil HFA, Ventolin HFA, ProAir HFA, Accuneb)
- Levalbuterol (Xopenex HFA, Xoponex nebulizer solution)
- Albuterol and ipratropium bromide combination (DuoNeb solution, Combivent Respimat)
- Pirbuterol (Maxair)
- Metaproterenol, available as a generic solution for nebulizers
As the name suggests, long-acting bronchodilators help control asthma symptoms by keeping the airways open for 12 hours, thus preventing asthma attacks.
They can only be used with inhaled steroids for long-term treatment.
You can use these rescue inhalers every day twice daily.
This is not a medication you would use in an emergency situation. Rather, this is what is utilized to prevent emergency situations.
Long-acting beta-2 agonists (LABAs) come in the following medications:
- Salmeterol (Serevent).
- Formoterol (Foradil).
- Combination medications that contain the LABA and an inhaled corticosteroid such as salmeterol and fluticasone (Advair); formoterol and mometasone (Dulera); formoterol and budesonide (Symbicort); and more.
How to Use a Rescue Inhaler
Rescue inhalers are relatively simple to use. If you haven’t used yours in a while, you will need to follow the instructions on the canister to prime it first.
Make sure you keep them stowed in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight, and away from high temperatures or changes in humidity.
Keep the canister away from anything that may cause it to puncture and replace the cap after every use to help maintain the pressure in the canister.
When to use a rescue inhaler
To avoid serious asthma attacks or symptoms, you should reach for your rescue inhaler when you feel your symptoms start to flare up.
Rescue inhalers are different from everyday inhalers as they are generally needed in somewhat unexpected situations.
It is important to keep your rescue inhaler on you at all times so you can take it in the following situations:
- Before you will be surrounded by your asthma triggers
- When you experience unexpected triggers
- 15-30 minutes before you start exercising
Steps for use
Follow these steps for effective use of a rescue inhaler:
- Take the cap off.
- Check the mouthpiece to ensure it is clean.
- Shake the inhaler firmly 10-15 times before use.
- Exhale as much air out of your lungs as possible.
- Hold the inhaler upright with the mouthpiece down. Place your lips around the mouthpiece so that you form a tight seal and no air can escape.
- Breathe in slowly as you push down on the inhaler once.
- Keep breathing in slowly until your lungs are at capacity.
- Take the inhaler out of your mouth and try to hold your breath for 10 seconds. This allows the medicine to reach fully into your lungs.
- Slowly release the air out of your lungs through your mouth.
If you are using quick-relief medicine (beta-agonists), wait one or two minutes before you take your next puff. For all other medicines, you do not need to wait between puffs.
Possible Side Effects
Side effects are not overly common with rescue inhalers. Possible side effects can include:
- Feeling nervous or shaky
- Increased heart rate
An upset stomach or trouble sleeping can present in extremely rare cases.
Common Asthma Triggers
Asthma attacks can occur when you are exposed to certain asthma triggers.
- Tobacco smoke
- Pets and animal dander
- Pests such as cockroaches and mice
- Dust mites
- Outdoor air pollution such as dust particles and smog
- Certain cleaners and disinfectants
- Any irritant, cleaning agent, or allergen can trigger asthma attacks
Other possible asthma triggers include:
- Physical exercise
- Stress or strong emotions
- Infections of the airway such as influenza and colds
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- Adverse reactions to certain medicines
- Bad weather
- Certain foods or food additives
If you suspect you may have asthma symptoms or experiencing an asthma attack you may have any of the following symptoms:
- Trouble breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness caused by asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Unfortunately, there is no cure for asthma so learning how to control your symptoms and manage triggers is essential for your health.
When to See a Medical Provider for Asthma
If you suspect you or your child has asthma and you have any of the following symptoms, you should get checked out by a medical professional.
They will be able to diagnose you and find the right treatment plan for you.
- Chest tightness
- Difficulty doing routine activities
- Feeling faint or weak
- Shortness of breath
- Wheezing when you inhale or exhale
For existing asthma patients, you should speak with a medical provider if you feel you need more than the prescribed amount or if you are taking the medication and your symptoms are not improving. There are several other treatment options that may be better suited to you.
How K Health Can Help
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Asthma Facts and Figures. (2022).
Common Asthma Triggers. (2020).
Frequent use of quick-relief medication among persons with active asthma. (2014).