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How Do Asthma Inhalers Work?

By Amy Stumpf ; Updated August 14, 2017

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that involves swelling of the airways, constriction of the muscles that surround them and increased mucus production, all of which make it hard to breathe. Asthma symptoms range from mild cough and wheezing to severe difficulty breathing, which can be life-threatening. To treat these symptoms, people often use a metered dose inhaler, a handheld device that delivers medication to the lungs. Inhalers dispense a variety of medications that act upon the lungs in different ways to help people breathe more easily. They can be a lifesaving measure during an acute asthma attack or used for control of daily symptoms.

Rescue Inhalers

Albuterol (Proventil, Proair, Ventolin) is a medication called a bronchodilator, commonly found in rescue inhalers for acute asthma attacks. After it is inhaled and reaches the lungs, it relaxes the constricted smooth muscles around the airway within minutes. The airways become larger, which allows air to pass more easily in and out of the lungs. Albuterol can be used every 4 to 6 hours to treat acute symptoms, with the guidance of a health care provider. It occasionally causes side effects such as tremor or a feeling of heart racing, but these may resolve over time.

Control Inhalers - Corticosteroids

Inhaled corticosteroids (Budesonide, Flovent, Asmanex, Alvesco, Beclovent, Qvar) are medications that decrease the swelling within the airways and make it easier to take a deep breath. Sometimes they are used in combination with rescue inhalers for acute symptoms. More often corticosteroids are used for prevention of daily asthma symptoms and acute attacks. Because they take time to work, they need to be taken every day to be effective. Inhaled corticosteroids' side effects may include sore throat, hoarseness and oral thrush, a fungal infection of the mouth. Washing the mouth out after using an inhaled corticosteroid may help prevent this from occurring.

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Control Inhalers - Other Medications

Like corticosteroids, other inhaled medications act over a long period of time to control asthma symptoms. They must be taken every day to be effective. Some inhalers contain a longer-acting form of a medication related to albuterol -- for example, salmeterol (Serevent). This works similarly -- by relaxing the smooth muscle around the airways -- but lasts much longer, from 12 to 24 hours. Drugs like salmeterol are given in combination with inhaled steroids in people whose asthma is not well controlled.

When to Seek Medical Help

Inhaler medications can be extremely beneficial in managing symptoms during an asthma attack and decrease the number of asthma attacks that occur. If severe shortness of breath and wheezing cannot be controlled with rescue inhalers, you should seek emergency medical care. In addition, notify your doctor if your asthma symptoms are not controlled with your current daily regimen. You should also contact a medical professional if you experience side effects from your inhaled medications that are not resolving, such as feeling your heart racing, tremor or white spots in your mouth, which could be a sign of oral thrush.

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