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Bronchodilators and Asthma

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A bronchodilator is used by almost all people with asthma as a way to open the airway passages.

Short-acting bronchodilators are used as a "quick relief" or "rescue" medication, while long-acting bronchodilators are used every day to control asthma -- in conjunction with an inhaled steroid. 

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An asthma action plan is a written plan developed by your doctor or asthma specialist to help you or another family member, including teenagers and children, manage asthma and prevent asthma attacks. The plan is designed to tell you or other family members what to do when there are changes in the severity of asthma symptoms and in peak flow numbers.

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What Are the Types of Bronchodilators for Asthma?

For treating asthma symptoms, there are three types of bronchodilators: beta-agonists,  anticholinergics, and theophylline. These bronchodilators are available in inhaled, tablet, liquid, and injectable forms, but the preferred method of taking the beta-agonists and anticholinergics is by inhalation.

What Are Short-Acting Bronchodilators?

Short-acting bronchodilators are called "quick-acting," "reliever," or "rescue" medications. These bronchodilators relieve acute asthma symptoms or attacks very quickly by opening the airways. The rescue medications are best for treating sudden asthma symptoms. The action of inhaled bronchodilators starts within minutes after inhalation and lasts for two to four hours. Short-acting bronchodilators are also used before exercise to prevent exercise-induced asthma.

For more information, see WebMD's article on Asthma Inhalers.

Short-acting bronchodilators can be used in an asthma nebulizer (breathing machine) in the form of a liquid to treat an asthma attack at home. 

For in-depth information, see WebMD's article on Asthma Nebulizers (Breathing Machines).

Overuse of short-acting bronchodilators, whether in asthma inhalers, in tablets, or in liquid, is a sign of uncontrolled asthma that needs better treatment. If you need to use your short-acting bronchodilators more than twice a week, talk with your doctor about improving your asthma controller therapy.

Short-Acting Bronchodilator Inhalers Available in the United States Include:

 

What Are Long-Acting Bronchodilators for Asthma?

The long-acting bronchodilators are used to provide control -- not quick relief -- of asthma. They should only be used in conjunction with inhaled steroids for long-term control of asthma symptoms. The long-acting bronchodilators are used twice a day.

Long-Acting Bronchodilator Asthma Inhalers Available in the United States Include:

  • Advair and Symbicort (a combination of a long-acting beta-agonist bronchodilator and an inhaled steroid)
  • Serevent (salmeterol)
  • Foradil (formoterol)
  • Perforomist (formoterol solution for nebulizers)

Long-acting beta-agonist bronchodilators increase the risk of death from asthma and should only be used as additional treatment for people who are also using an inhaled steroid. For details, see their black-box warning.

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