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 (dilates) the airways, known as bronchioles.

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

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Relief from an asthma attack is the chief use.

An estimated 26.5 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:

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 worsen. Like asthma, COPD causes breathing difficulties.

A study from 2016 found that people with COPD experienced relief from severe symptoms after using typical 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 buildup of mucus. This, too, makes breathing easier.

There are three types of bronchodilators:

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

  • tablets
  • liquids
  • injections

Doctors prescribe bronchodilators for two different treatment goals; short-acting effect and longer-acting effect, also considered “maintenance” dosing.

Rescue inhalers use short-acting medication. These can immediately provide relief and continue to work for 4 to 6 hours.

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:

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

Use a rescue inhaler for relief at the first sign of any of these symptoms. 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 appropriately 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.

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

Learn more about asthma management here.

If 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, not for long-term management. If someone 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.