A rescue inhaler helps to expand a person’s airways during an asthma attack.

Rescue inhalers dispense a type of medication called a bronchodilator, which expands, or dilates, the airways, known as bronchioles.

Here, we explore the different types of rescue inhaler. We also discuss how these inhalers are used and any associated side effects.

Fast facts on rescue inhalers:

  • A rescue inhaler is used to reduce the symptoms of an asthma attack.
  • A person having an attack should use their rescue inhaler.
  • A person with asthma should carry a rescue inhaler at all times.
Was this helpful?

Share on Pinterest
Kinga Krzeminska/Getty Images

Relief from an asthma attack is the chief use.

According to a recent estimate in the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, 26 million Americans have asthma. It is a long-term condition that affects the lungs and airways.

During an asthma attack, the airways swell. This makes them narrower, causing a person to:

  • cough
  • wheeze
  • have trouble breathing

A rescue inhaler delivers medication that expands the airways, relieving these symptoms. This helps the person to recover from the attack and breathe normally.

Someone with asthma may also use a rescue inhaler before a workout, to prevent an attack.

A person with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may also benefit from using a rescue inhaler if their symptoms are worsening. Like asthma, COPD causes breathing difficulties.

A study from 2016 found that people with COPD experienced relief from severe symptoms after using typical types of rescue inhalers.

Rescue inhalers allow a person having an asthma attack to inhale their medication.

When inhaled, the medication relaxes the muscles in the airways. This causes the airways to widen, reducing breathing difficulties.

These types of medicines — bronchodilators — also help to open the airways by reducing the build-up of mucus. This, too, makes breathing easier.

There are three types of bronchodilators:

  • beta-agonists
  • anticholinergics
  • theophylline

Inhalation is the best way to take a bronchodilator. These medications are also available as:

  • tablets
  • liquids
  • injections

There are two types of bronchodilator: long-acting and short-acting.

Rescue inhalers use short-acting medication, which provides relief from symptoms within 15 to 20 minutes.

Short-acting bronchodilators continue to work for 4 to 6 hours.

Albuterol is one short-acting medication commonly used in rescue inhalers.

Long-acting bronchodilators help people with asthma to manage their condition in the long term. They provide control, rather than immediate relief of symptoms.

Long-acting medications commonly used in rescue inhalers include budesonide and formoterol.

Side effects may include:

  • feeling shaky or anxious
  • a rapid heart rate
  • hyperactivity

Rare side effects include an upset stomach and sleeplessness.

Any person diagnosed with asthma should keep their rescue inhaler close by at all times, in case of an attack.

Symptoms of an attack include:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • trouble breathing
  • a tight chest

At the first sign of any of these symptoms, use a rescue inhaler for relief. Doing so as soon as possible will reduce the severity of the attack.

It is important to stay calm. The medication starts to expand the airways as soon as it is inhaled. A person should be able to breathe normally again within 15 to 20 minutes.

A doctor can teach a person to use their inhaler in a way that ensures the best results. A 2016 study found that teaching people to use rescue inhalers properly reduced the need for emergency care.

If a person has to use a rescue inhaler more than twice a week, it may be a sign that their asthma is not well managed. If this is the case, speak to a doctor about options for long-term management.

A doctor can develop a plan to provide the best possible management of asthma. A common plan involves using long-acting bronchodilators twice a day, alongside inhaled steroids.

This helps to keep the airways open.

Following a long-term management plan reduces the risk of an asthma attack. It can also mean that a person experiences symptoms less often.

If using a rescue inhaler has not relieved symptoms, a person may need emergency treatment. In this case, they should contact emergency services.

A person with asthma should also contact emergency services if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • rapid breathing, with the skin feeling sucked in around the ribs as they inhale
  • rapidly moving nostrils
  • the ribs or stomach deeply and rapidly moving in and out
  • the face, fingernails, or lips turning blue
  • the chest remaining inflated as they exhale

If a person with asthma experiences any symptoms of an asthma attack, they should use a rescue inhaler. One should always be close at hand.

If symptoms of an asthma attack persist following the use of a rescue inhaler, a person may require emergency treatment. In this event, call 911.

A rescue inhaler is only intended for use during an asthma attack, to relieve acute symptoms. It should not be used for long-term management. If a person needs to use their rescue inhaler more than twice a week, they should speak to a doctor. The doctor can review the current methods of asthma management and develop a comprehensive plan.

Asthma can be managed well with the right long-term treatment plan. Still, a person should always keep a rescue inhaler with them, just in case.