How to use an asthma inhaler

Reviewed by Theresa H. Care Delivery Manager & Family Nurse Practitioner

Time saver 3 min read

If you’ve been diagnosed with asthma, breathing isn’t something you take for granted. On days when your asthma is acting up, it can be a challenge to manage your symptoms. When you were diagnosed with asthma, you were probably prescribed a rescue inhaler. And whether your asthma tends to flare after a morning jog or is triggered by a fresh mowed lawn, using a rescue inhaler is an important part of your asthma management plan. But, like any medication, it can sometimes be tricky to know exactly when and how to use an asthma rescue inhaler. 

What’s in a rescue inhaler?

The medication in a rescue inhaler is what’s known as a short-acting beta agonist (SABA) or bronchodilator. Albuterol is one of the most common medications used in rescue inhalers. This medication works by relaxing the muscle bands around your airways. When you have an asthma attack, these muscles contract and it becomes harder to breathe. Using an albuterol rescue inhaler helps open constricted airways – making it easier to get air into your lungs.    

When to use an albuterol rescue inhaler 

Albuterol rescue inhalers can be used to both prevent and stop an asthma attack.  

At the first sign of asthma symptoms – including shortness of breath, mild tightness in your chest, coughing and wheezing – promptly use your rescue inhaler. Using a rescue inhaler should help relieve your symptoms within 15 to 20 minutes. Additionally, the medication also remains in your system and continues to work to prevent asthma attacks for up to four to six hours.   

You can also use an albuterol rescue inhaler to prevent an asthma flare. If you’ve been diagnosed with asthma, you probably know your asthma triggers. For example, if common allergens like pollen or pet dander tend to trigger your asthma, you can use your rescue inhaler 15 to 20 minutes before you head outside or visit your in-laws’ home … and their feline friend. 

How to use an asthma inhaler

If you were prescribed an asthma rescue inhaler, it’s important to make sure you know how to correctly use your medication.

Step-by-step instructions  

    1. Shake the inhaler
    2. Breathe out completely through your mouth 
    3. Remove the cap – place the inhaler mouthpiece into your mouth and close your lips around it 
    4. Press down once to dispense medication while breathing in slowly and deeply 
    5. Hold your breath – and the medication – in for 10 seconds  
    6. Remove the inhaler from your mouth and breathe out slowly

*If directed to dispense two puffs, repeat steps two through six above.  

Like with any medication, some people who use an albuterol rescue inhaler may experience side effects. Often, these side effects are mild and improve over time. Some of the more common side effects include jitteriness, nausea, headache, throat irritation and a cough.  

How often should you use an asthma inhaler?

Asthma rescue inhalers are typically prescribed as part of an asthma management plan to help control mild to moderate asthma. While there may be times when your asthma is worse (hello springtime allergies), you shouldn’t need to use your rescue inhaler every day.

How do you know if you’re using your rescue inhaler too often? One albuterol rescue inhaler should last between 6 to 12 months. If you’re using your rescue inhaler more than two times per week or run out of medication within six months, it’s a good idea to see a provider in person. A provider can assess and make adjustments to ensure your asthma management plan meets your specific health needs.  

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