Asthma interferes with a person’s ability to breathe. It does this by causing inflammation in the airways of the lungs, which makes them narrower. Over-the-counter (OTC) inhalers and medications may help people with very mild asthma manage their symptoms.

People should only consider using these treatments if they have received a diagnosis of asthma and checked with their doctor that OTC products are sufficient for them.

Keep reading to learn more about OTC asthma inhalers, including how they compare with traditional asthma inhalers.

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Nearly 25 million people in the United States have asthma. The condition causes a range of symptoms, but not everyone will experience all of them or have them all at the same time.

People with asthma may:

  • feel short of breath
  • have tightness in the chest
  • experience frequent coughing fits
  • start wheezing, making whistling sounds when they exhale

A flare-up or exacerbation, in which symptoms suddenly get much worse, is called an asthma attack, and it can be life threatening. In 2016, asthma-related problems were responsible for almost 1.8 million trips to hospital emergency rooms.

Asthma is a chronic condition, which means that it does not go away. People can, however, manage the condition to allow them to live with fewer symptoms and have less frequent and milder asthma attacks. People with asthma should receive treatment that is appropriate for their specific needs.

Managing asthma effectively calls for a mix of different treatment approaches:

  • Quick relief: Inhalers help people reduce their symptoms or keep their symptoms from getting worse during an asthma attack.
  • Long-term control: Prescription medications — which a person takes daily, regardless of symptoms — work to reduce inflammation on an ongoing basis.
  • Avoiding asthma triggers: Avoiding activities, places, and other factors that can cause flare-ups, from intense exercise to pollen, helps reduce symptoms and attacks.

For people with very mild asthma and infrequent attacks, OTC medications may be sufficient to keep symptoms under control. However, asthma tends to change over time, and mild asthma can become more severe, so regular checkups are still important.

Asthma is a serious health condition that can affect people in many ways, and it can be life threatening. Medical experts recommend that people with asthma see a doctor regularly to monitor their health.

Heart disease and other respiratory conditions can have symptoms similar to those of asthma, so people should receive a diagnosis from a doctor before using OTC asthma inhalers or other treatments.

Popular OTC asthma treatment options include:

Primatene Mist HFA

Primatene Mist HFA, which is suitable for people 12 years old and over, is the only nonprescription inhaler that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved. People inhale this liquid form of epinephrine through the mouth. It relaxes the airways and helps them open up, making it easier to breathe.

Not all medical experts support the FDA’s decision. The American College of Chest Physicians are on record as opposing the choice because they maintain that all people with asthma need to be under a doctor’s care.


The active ingredient in this OTC asthma inhaler is racepinephrine. The inhaler is available without a prescription to relieve mild symptoms of occasional asthma, such as shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and wheezing.

Pregnant women, people who take antidepressants known as MAO inhibitors, and those with heart disease, diabetes, thyroid issues, and many other conditions should not use this medication.

Bronchial asthma relief

An OTC tablet comprising a blend of ephedrine and guaifenesin, this medication thins mucus, which makes it easier for people to cough it out of their lungs.

Some people turn to acupuncture and other alternative treatments for help with their asthma symptoms. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, there is not enough evidence to support using these practices.

Learn more about alternative asthma remedies here.

OTC asthma inhalers are quick-relief medications that a person should use as soon as asthma symptoms develop. A doctor may also prescribe them for people with exercise-induced asthma who will need to take the medication before working out.

Inhalers send medication directly to the inflamed airways, but it is important to make sure that it reaches the lower lungs.

As with other quick-relief medications, people should only use OTC asthma inhalers occasionally. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, if people feel the need to use an inhaler more than twice within a week or on 2 or more nights a month, they should contact their doctor because their asthma treatment plan is not working as it should.

As asthma is different in every individual, some experts recommend against any kind of OTC treatment, emphasizing the importance of individualized treatment plans.

OTC asthma inhalers can help some people who have received an asthma diagnosis control their symptoms.

Healthcare professionals recommend that only people with mild and infrequent asthma attacks use these medications.

Asthma is a chronic health condition that can get worse over time. Without treatment, it can permanently damage the lungs and limit breathing. For this reason, many healthcare professionals urge caution with using any nonprescription asthma treatment.