Reliever inhalers

Reliever inhalers are usually blue. They act quickly to treat asthma symptoms and give emergency relief when you're having an asthma attack.

How do reliever inhalers help asthma? 

When you have an asthma attack your blue reliever inhaler gets the medicine straight to your lungs, so it can quickly relax the muscles surrounding your airways. The airways can then open more widely, making it easier to breathe again. You should feel a difference to your breathing within a few minutes.  

Who needs a reliever inhaler?

Anyone diagnosed with asthma will be prescribed a reliever inhaler, including children under five with suspected asthma. This is to make sure you can relieve asthma symptoms quickly when they come on.

Is a reliever inhaler all you need?

If you only have very mild symptoms, for example if you come into contact with a known trigger, your GP may prescribe you just a reliever inhaler to use when you get symptoms.

But if you notice you’re using your reliever inhaler three or more times a week, or you’re getting symptoms most weeks, go back to your GP or asthma nurse to talk about getting a preventer inhaler too.

“There are a very few people who only need to be prescribed just a reliever inhaler for when they get symptoms. Most people with asthma benefit from a regular preventer inhaler taken every day to prevent symptoms coming on.” Dr Andy Whittamore, Asthma UK’s in-house GP.

Questions about your reliever inhaler? Call our friendly asthma nurses on 0300 222 5800 (Mon – Fri; (9am – 5pm) for advice.    

How does my reliever inhaler work alongside my preventer inhaler?

Your reliever inhaler and preventer inhaler work alongside each other to help reduce your risk of asthma attacks.

  • A reliever inhaler treats asthma symptoms quickly so you’re less likely to have an asthma attack. And if you do have an asthma attack your reliever inhaler can come to the rescue. 
  • A preventer inhaler is for every day. It works in the background to calm down the inflammation and sensitivity in your airways. If you take your preventer inhaler every day as prescribed, you’re less likely to react to triggers and get asthma symptoms. And you'll be less at risk of an asthma attack. 

If you need to use your reliever inhaler three times a week or more, it's a sign your asthma isn’t well managed. You should 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?

Usually blue, short-acting reliever inhalers contain medicine that relaxes the airways and makes it easier for you to breathe. For example: 

  • 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 do I need to take my reliever inhaler? 

Use your reliever inhaler as soon as you notice asthma symptoms. It can help get your asthma back under control and prevent an asthma attack.

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 your GP or asthma nurse may suggest you take your reliever inhaler 20 minutes before you start exercising. This can prevent symptoms coming on.

If exercise often triggers symptoms for you though, it's worth making an appointment to have an asthma review. Asthma symptoms brought on by any kind of exercise can be a sign that your asthma is not well managed.

If you need to take your reliever three or more times a week it could be a sign that your asthma isn’t well controlled. Your GP or asthma nurse can review your asthma treatments. 

Get the best from your reliever inhaler

  • Keep your reliever inhaler with you at all times, so 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. Using a spacer also cuts side effects.
  • Make sure your reliever is in date. If your asthma is well managed, you may not be using your reliever much. The medicine could go out of date so check the expiry date. You can find it on the bottom of the box, or on the side of the cannister. 
  • Make sure there's enough medicine left in your reliever especially when you’re going away on holiday or over the Christmas holidays when your GP surgery is closed. Some inhalers have indicators on the side to tell you how much medicine is left. But shaking the inhaler, or the canister inside, can also give you an idea of how much there is inside. 
  • Use your reliever as an early warning system. If you notice you’re using your reliever inhaler three or more times a week, it's a sign that your asthma is not well controlled. Ask your GP or asthma nurse to review your asthma and the medicines you're taking for it. If you haven't got a preventer inhaler yet, it could be that you need one. A preventer inhaler will help prevent symptoms starting in the first place.
  • Know when to call 999. If you’re having asthma symptoms and your reliever inhaler isn’t helping, 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.
  • Have your inhaler technique checked by your GP or asthma nurse. Using the correct inhaler technique will help get the asthma medicine straight into your lungs where it’s needed. Ask your GP or asthma nurse to show you the best way to take your inhaler at each asthma review.
  • Always keep the cap on your reliever when you’re not using it. Small objects could get stuck in the mouthpiece if you don’t put the cap on – especially if you carry your inhaler in your bag. This is dangerous because you could end up inhaling them when you next come to use your inhaler. 
  • Store your reliever inhaler at the right temperature. Extreme temperatures and high altitudes can affect the medicine in your reliever inhaler. Check the label on your inhaler for storage instructions, or speak to your GP or asthma nurse for advice. You can also call our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm) if you have any questions on using and storing your reliever inhaler. 

What are the possible side effects of reliever inhalers?

Relievers are a safe and effective medicine and have very few side effects. 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

These 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 worried about your child taking asthma medicines, our page answers all your common concerns.

You can also call our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 to speak to one of our asthma nurses or send them an email

If you're using your reliever inhaler a lot

If you usually take your reliever inhaler three or more times a week you’re only dealing with your immediate asthma symptoms. What your reliever can't do is deal with the underlying inflammation that’s causing them. This means that your airways are less able to cope with asthma triggers and you’re at a much higher risk of an asthma attack. 

Also, using your reliever inhaler regularly could mean that your body starts to get used to the reliever medicine and you need higher doses for it to work. 

If you stick to a good routine of taking your preventer inhaler every day, even when you're feeling well, you won't need to use your reliever inhaler so much. This is because your preventer inhaler stops symptoms coming on in the first place. 

Keeping an eye on reliever prescriptions

If you think you’ve collected more than 12 prescriptions for your reliever inhaler in a year (or you get through more than one inhaler in a month) see your GP or asthma nurse. It could be that your asthma's not well managed and you're at higher risk of an asthma attack. 

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 three or more 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. 

Long-acting reliever inhalers

If you have a preventer inhaler and are using it in the right way as prescribed, but you're still having asthma symptoms, you might also need 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 January 2018

Next review due January 2021