Guide to Asthma Inhalers

By:    Medically Reviewed: Tom Iarocci, MD   Published: October 9, 2013

Asthma inhalers can be used to treat the sudden onset of asthma symptoms as well as preventing symptoms from developing in the first place.

a a a
When someone wheezes or has trouble breathing on a regular basis, she may be suffering from asthma, one of the most common diseases in the United States today.

About out one in six asthma sufferers had at least one attack in the past year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many could have been prevented with proper medical treatment, such as an inhaler.

An inhaler is a portable, boot-shaped, handheld device that opens the airways by delivering medication directly into the lungs. Most inhalers require a prescription, and although asthma medication can also be administered at home or in a medical office via a small machine called a nebulizer, an inhaler has two main advantages: It can help reduce symptoms quickly and easily, and it’s small enough to take anywhere.

Your physician might recommend different types of inhalers depending on the frequency and intensity of your symptoms. As with all types of medications, it’s important to understand when and how to properly use the asthma inhaler that’s right for you.

How an asthma inhaler works

Symptoms of asthma will often include wheezing and trouble breathing. Some asthma sufferers may also experience chest tightness and coughing. During an asthma attack, airways in the lungs can narrow, inflammation can develop and mucus production may increase. All three factors make breathing difficult.

Usually, a rescue inhaler is prescribed to relieve sudden symptoms including shortness of breath and wheezing. Your doctor will indicate the number of puffs needed and how often you should take the medication. He or she may also recommend a maintenance inhaler if your asthma symptoms occur frequently and you need your rescue inhaler often.

Types of asthma inhaler medications

Asthma inhaler medications come in various classifications, including

  • Short-acting bronchodilators;
  • Long-acting bronchodilators; and
  • Steroidal and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory inhalers.

Depending on the severity and frequency of your symptoms, each type of inhaler may play a role in treating your asthma. Other asthma inhalers may contain a combination of medications, such as two types of bronchodilators or a combination of long-acting bronchodilators and steroids to help treat both inflammation and narrowing of the airways.     

Devices also come in different types. A metered dose inhaler is a canister that’s pressurized and delivers medication in the form of an aerosol. A dry powder inhaler isn’t pressurized and delivers the medication in the form of a powder.

When do you need a spacer in an inhaler?

A spacer, sometimes referred to as an aerochamber, is a small tube that can be attached between the inhaler and mouthpiece on certain metered dose inhalers. Attaching a spacer to the inhaler makes it easier to take the medication. Once the canister is pressed, the medication is trapped inside the chamber, allowing the patient to inhale slowly and deeply. This helps the medication infiltrate deeper into the airways and makes treatment more effective.

A spacer also makes it possible to give young children an inhaler. These spacers have a mask on one end that fits over the child’s nose and mouth as he or she inhales.

Environmental concerns about inhalers

Chlorofluorocarbons were once used as propellants in various aerosol sprays including asthma inhalers. Because the main chemical compound is believed to damage the earth’s ozone layer, the U.S. government began regulating the use of chlorofluorocarbons in the 1970s. While they were banned in products like hairspray, chlorofluorocarbons were allowed in medical products including asthma inhalers until fairly recently.

In the spring of 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to phase out asthma inhalers that contain chlorofluorocarbons. In response, some inhaler manufacturers have switched to hydrofluoroalkane, a propellant that’s believed to be safer for the environment.

Take the next steps

Asthma can interfere with your daily activities and impact your quality of life, but the right asthma inhaler can help. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms, and make sure you understand how and when to use your inhaler properly to help prevent and manage your asthma symptoms.

Asthma medication is only effective if patients use their inhalers properly. New or different devices may require subtle variations in proper technique, so be sure to refer to the manufacturer’s “instructions for use” printed on the package insert that comes with any new inhaler.

More in Health A-Z
New on SymptomFind
a a a  
sources
  • American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Inhaled asthma medications: tips to remember. http://www.aaaai.org. Accessed May 2013.
  • KidsHealth from Nemours. What’s the difference between a nebulizer and an inhaler? August 2011. http://kidshealth.org. Accessed May 2013.
  • MedlinePlus. Metered dose inhaler use – series. NIH July 2012. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus. Accessed May 2013.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Seven inhalers that use CFCs being phased out. April 2010. http://www.fda.gov. Accessed May 2013.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Asthma Basics.” National Center for Health Statistics Reports and Publications. Last updated August 8, 2013. http://www.cdc.gov/asthma/. Accessed September 2013.
RELATED ARTICLES
NEED ANSWERS?