Reliever inhalers

Everyone with asthma should have a reliever inhaler. Reliever inhalers are usually blue.

Reliever inhalers in brief

Whatever your questions or concerns about asthma, our asthma nurse specialists are just a call away on 0300 222 5800 (9am – 5pm; Mon – Fri).

  • Usually blue, reliever inhalers 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.
  • If you’re prescribed a preventer inhaler (usually brown, orange or red), you should always keep your reliever inhaler with you to treat on-the-spot symptoms.
  • Your GP, asthma nurse or pharmacist should show you how to use your reliever 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?

All adults and children need a reliever inhaler. Your GP or asthma nurse will try different inhalers to find the one that’s best for you or your child. 

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

  • A short-acting reliever inhaler (usually blue) is for emergencies. It treats asthma symptoms on-the-spot so you’re less likely to have an asthma attack. Everyone who has asthma should have a reliever inhaler. 
  • A preventer inhaler is a long-term treatment works over time to reduce your risk of an asthma attack by reducing inflammation and sensitivity in your airways. This means if you take your preventer inhaler every day as prescribed, you’re less likely to react to triggers and get asthma symptoms such as breathlessness. 

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?

Usually blue, short-acting reliever inhalers 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 do I need to take my reliever inhaler? 

You should use your reliever inhaler as soon as you notice asthma symptoms. It will help to get your asthma back under control and ward off 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 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 than two puffs of your reliever to feel better, it’s a sign that your asthma isn’t well managed. At this point you need to book an appointment with your GP or asthma nurse to review your asthma treatments. 

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. If your asthma is well managed, you may not need to use your reliever much and your medicine could go out of date. Check the expiry date on your reliever. You can find it on the bottom of the box, or on the side of the cannister. 
  • Make sure there's enough medicine in it 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 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 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 technique checked by your GP or asthma nurse. Using the correct inhaler technique will help you make sure your asthma medicine goes straight into your lungs where it’s needed. Ask your GP or asthma nurse to show you the correct inhaler technique at each asthma review, just so you can be sure you’re getting the most from your reliever inhaler.
  • 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. 

Possible side effects of reliever inhalers

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

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 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

Continuing to take your reliever inhaler more than two or three times a week means you’re only dealing with your immediate asthma symptoms, and not dealing 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’ve been prescribed a preventer inhaler, you need to use it daily (usually once in the morning and again at night) even when you’re feeling well, 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 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.  

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 August 2016.