Reliever inhalers save lives: they are an essential 'on-the-spot' treatment to give you relief from asthma symptoms and asthma attacks.
How do reliever inhalers help asthma?
Reliever inhalers relax your airways very quickly, to allow you to breathe more easily. In an emergency situation where your symptoms come on, a reliever inhaler helps to get the medicine straight to the lungs, so it can quickly relax the muscles surrounding your airways. The airways open more widely, making it easier to breathe again. You should feel a difference to your breathing within a few minutes.
Because they act quickly they’re good for an emergency – if you’re having an asthma attack it’s the reliever inhaler you need to use.
Who needs a reliever inhaler?
Everyone with asthma needs a reliever inhaler. Relievers are prescribed for adults and children. Your GP/asthma nurse will try different inhalers to find the one that’s best for you or your child, and one that’s easy to carry around. If you have an aerosol metered dose inhaler (MDI) a spacer will make it easier to use, and more effective.
Is a reliever inhaler all you need?
It’s quite common for people with asthma to be prescribed both a reliever and a preventer. This is because a reliever is great as a quick fix for a flare up of asthma symptoms. But, unlike the preventer inhaler, it can’t do anything about the long term build-up of inflammation in your airways.
It’s important to know that if you need your reliever inhaler more than three times a week, your asthma is not as well managed as it could be and you need to talk to your GP or asthma nurse about taking a regular preventer inhaler.
What kinds of reliever inhalers are there?
- Reliever inhalers are usually blue.
- Metered dose inhalers (MDIs) give the medicine in a spray form (aerosol).
- Breath actuated inhalers (BAIs), such as Easi-breathe, Airmax, and Autohaler automatically release a spray of medicine when you begin to inhale.
- Dry powder inhalers (DPIs), such as Accuhaler, give the medicine in a dry powder instead of a spray.
Whatever inhaler you’re prescribed you need to know how to use it in the best way. Good inhaler technique gets the right dose of asthma medicine into the lungs.
To make it easier to get the best from your asthma medicine, MDI aerosol inhalers can be used with a spacer.
When to take your reliever inhaler
Your reliever inhaler is not like your preventer inhaler – you don’t need to take it every day. Instead you use it only when you need to get your asthma back under control when you’re having symptoms, or an asthma attack. Use your reliever inhaler as soon as you notice asthma symptoms. Your written asthma action plan will remind you what symptoms to look out for and when you need to use your reliever inhaler.
If your asthma is triggered by exercise you might have been told to take your reliever inhaler 15–20 minutes before you start exercising to prevent symptoms coming on. But if you’re doing this often it’s worth reviewing your asthma with your GP or asthma nurse because asthma symptoms brought on by any kind of exercise can be a sign that your asthma is not in good control.
If you find that you need to take your reliever more often – more than 3 times a week - or that you need more puffs of your reliever to feel better it’s a sign that your asthma isn’t well-managed so it’s really important to see your GP or asthma nurse to review your asthma treatments. Your written asthma action plan is a great way to keep an eye on asthma symptoms and how often you’re using your reliever inhaler to relieve them.
Get the best from your reliever inhaler
- Keep it with you at all times, so that it’s there when you need it. If your child is at nursery or school you should leave a spare inhaler there in case your child needs it. It’s helpful for the school to keep your child’s spare inhaler in its original box.
- If you’ve got an MDI inhaler use it with a spacer to make sure your medicine is getting where it needs to and to cut side effects
- Make sure it’s in date because if you’re asthma is well-managed you may not need to use your reliever much and they do have expiry dates.
- Make sure there’s enough medicine in it especially when you’re going away on holiday or your GP is closed for Christmas. Some inhalers have indicators on the side to tell you how much medicine is left. But shaking the inhaler, or the canister inside, gives you an idea of how much is left.
- Use it as an early warning system. If you find that you’re using your reliever inhaler more than three times a week this is a sign that your asthma is not well controlled. Ask your GP/asthma nurse to review your asthma because it may be that you also need a preventer inhaler to help prevent symptoms starting in the first place.
- Know it can help you understand when to call 999. If your reliever inhaler isn’t helping with your symptoms you’re probably having an asthma attack. Your asthma action plan will remind you what you need to do to get your symptoms under control. But if nothing’s helping and you’re still not feeling any better you need to call 999 urgently. An asthma attack is an emergency.
Side effects of reliever medicines
Relievers are a safe and effective medicine and have very few side effects. So many people have used asthma reliever inhalers for so many years, and they have literally saved lives.
Some people have these side effects after taking a few puffs of their reliever inhaler:
- Their heart beats faster for a short while
- Their muscles shake slightly
Side effects like this are more common when someone needs to take a few puffs of their reliever inhaler. They usually pass within a few minutes or a few hours at most and are not dangerous.
The best way to avoid these side effects is to have your asthma reviewed regularly so that your GP/asthma nurse can make sure you’re doing all you can to prevent asthma symptoms in the first place.
If you’re using your reliever inhaler a lot
One of the side effects of continuing to take your reliever inhaler more than two or three times a week is that you’re only dealing with your immediate symptoms and not dealing with the underlying inflammation that’s causing them. This means that your airways are less able to deal with asthma triggers and you’re at much higher risk of an asthma attack.
In the long term you risk making your asthma worse by not using a preventer inhaler to stop symptoms coming on in the first place. It could also mean that your body starts to get used to the reliever medicine and you need higher doses for it to work.
Long-acting reliever inhalers
If you're still having asthma symptoms even though you're taking your preventer inhaler regularly, and in the right way, you might also be prescribed a long-acting reliever inhaler called a long-acting beta agonist. It’s really important to understand that your long-acting reliever inhaler doesn’t replace your usual, short-acting reliever inhaler.
A long-acting reliever inhaler is as an 'add-on' medicine and should never be used on its own to treat your asthma. Long-acting reliever inhalers should only be used if you’ve also been prescribed:
- a steroid preventer inhaler to use every day as prescribed
- a short acting reliever inhaler to keep with you at all times for use when your symptoms flare up or in an emergency.
How does it work?
A long-acting reliever inhaler keeps the airways opened up by relaxing the muscles around them. This helps you breathe more easily.
The relief of a long acting reliever inhaler lasts longer than your short acting reliever, usually around twelve hours instead of four. Unlike your regular, short-acting reliever inhaler you need to take your long-acting reliever every day (some only once and some twice) even when you’re feeling well.
You’ll only get the benefits of a long-acting reliever inhaler and cut your risk of an asthma attack if you also take your steroid preventer inhaler regularly as prescribed.
Your long acting reliever and your preventer might be prescribed as one device known as a combination inhaler.
Last reviewed April 2015