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Asthma: The Rescue Inhaler -- Now a Cornerstone of Asthma Treatment

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

When asthma symptoms are in high gear and the wheezing and coughing sets in, it's the inhaler to the rescue -- the rescue inhaler, to be exact. If you have asthma, your rescue inhaler should be among the first things you reach for when you leave the house, along with your wallet and car keys.

How do rescue inhalers work, and why are they such a crucial part of managing asthma? WebMD consulted the experts to learn more about rescue inhalers, and the important role they play in asthma treatment.

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The Basics of Rescue Inhalers

The most common class of rescue inhalers is the beta-agonist bronchodilator. Beta-agonist drugs provide short-acting, quick relief when symptoms like wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness flare -- whether it's from a friend's cat, summer pollen, a dusty house, or a run on a cold day.

"Standard albuterol is probably one of the most frequently used beta-agonists," says Richard Honsinger, MD, a spokesman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Along with albuterol, other short-acting beta-agonists are available by prescription, including levalbuterol, metaproterenol sulfate, pirbuterol, and terbutaline. These drugs work by relaxing the bronchial smooth muscle in the lung, opening the airways and allowing more oxygen in as you breathe.

Rescue Inhalers: Squeeze and Breathe

While it sounds simple, when you puff and how you puff are important components of managing asthma symptoms. When symptoms rear their ugly heads, one or two inhalations can be taken every four to six hours for the quick-relief of wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness. But it is important that you take your asthma medication the correct way.

"When I see a patient, I ask them to use an inhaler for me," says Honsinger. "I find that 1 out of 4 use it incorrectly. They're putting it in their mouth and they're not squeezing it when they breathe in so they don't get a full dose. Or they squirt in their mouth and then they breathe in through their nose, so the medicine doesn't get into the lungs."

According to Honsinger, when you use your inhaler, you need to take a slow breath in, while simultaneously squeezing the inhaler to deliver a dose, then hold the breath for several seconds. And if doing both at the same time is still tricky -- like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time -- try using a "spacer" to help you get it right.

"Spacers squeeze the medicine into a tube and then you use the tube to breathe in the dose," says Honsinger. "It has a one-way valve so you have to breathe in to get the medicine out, and it helps get the medicine into your lungs instead of onto the back of your mouth."

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