Reliever inhalers in brief
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- Everyone with asthma needs a reliever inhaler. They're usually blue. They give you on-the-spot relief from asthma symptoms and asthma attacks, relaxing your airways very quickly.
- Keep your reliever inhaler with you all the time so it's on hand in an emergency.
- Use it as soon as you notice asthma symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. You should feel a difference to your breathing within a few minutes.
- If you need your reliever inhaler more than three times a week, your asthma is not as well managed as it could be - review your treatment with your GP or asthma nurse.
- Your GP, asthma nurse or pharmacist should show you how to use your inhaler properly so that every dose is effective.
How do reliever inhalers help asthma?
Short-acting reliever inhalers (usually blue) relax your airways very quickly, to allow you to breathe more easily. In an emergency situation where your symptoms come on, a short-acting 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 or 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.
Is a reliever inhaler all you need?
If you have very mild asthma, you may only need a reliever inhaler. It's quite common, though, for people with asthma to be prescribed a preventer inhaler as well as a reliever inhaler. This is because a reliever is great as a quick fix for a flare-up of asthma symptoms. But it can't do anything about the long term build-up of inflammation in your airways - you need a preventer inhaler for that.
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.
How does my reliever inhaler work alongside my preventer inhaler?
Your reliever inhaler does a completely different job to your preventer inhaler. Your preventer inhaler works in the long term to reduce inflammation and swelling in your airways. This cuts your risk of asthma attacks and means you’re less likely to have other symptoms and respond to triggers, such as breathlessness.
Your reliever inhaler, on the other hand, works quickly when you need it, relaxing your airways so it’s easier to breathe. If you have a preventer inhaler, you should use it every day as directed, usually twice a day. You can then use your reliever when you need it, to treat any symptoms. But if your asthma’s well managed, you should only need to use your reliever inhaler rarely, if ever.
If you need to use your reliever inhaler three times a week or more, this is a sign your asthma isn’t well managed, so see your GP or asthma nurse urgently for an asthma review. They may need to change your medicine or check your inhaler technique to make sure you’re getting the full benefits from your preventer inhaler.
What kinds of reliever inhalers are there?
Short-acting reliever inhalers are usually blue. They all contain medicine that relaxes the airways and makes it easier for you to breathe.
- Metered dose inhalers (MDIs) give the medicine in a spray form (aerosol), for example Ventolin, Airomir and Salamol.
- 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
You use your reliever inhaler 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 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 being well managed.
If you find that you need to take your reliever more often - more than three 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 your 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 surgery 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 or 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 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.
Possible side effects of reliever inhalers
Relievers are a safe and effective medicine and have very few side effects. Many people have used asthma reliever inhalers for many years. 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 these 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 or 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 a 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.
Keep an eye on your reliever prescriptions
A recent report has highlighted that if you're collecting more than 12 reliever inhalers in a year, your asthma might not be well managed and your risk of an asthma attack might be higher. If you think you've collected more than 12 prescriptions for your reliever inhaler in a year, see your GP or asthma nurse.
Of course what really counts is how many reliever inhalers you're using - you may have collected your prescriptions (especially if you've got a repeat prescription) but not used them. Some people get more reliever inhalers to have as spares, perhaps to keep in the car, or at school or work, but are not necessarily using them. If you can't remember how many reliever prescriptions you've collected, and are worried about your risk, the key question to ask yourself is: am I using my reliever inhaler more than three times a week? If you are, your asthma isn't well managed and you need to see your GP or asthma nurse to review your treatment.
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. It’s really important to understand that you need to use your long-acting reliever inhaler alongside a preventer, never on its own.
Last reviewed March 2016