Rescue Inhalers: Uses, Side Effects, and More

By Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
August 11, 2022

If you suffer from asthma, you’re among the 25 million Americans who also have this chronic, lifelong condition. Asthma affects the airways of the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe.

Most asthma sufferers are aware of their triggers and can use long-acting bronchodilators to help them manage their symptoms.

However, asthma attacks and symptoms can also come on unexpectedly. 

Nearly 24.3% of all adults and 18.7 % of all children self-reported active asthma and relied on quick-relief rescue medications to control their asthma in the past three months.

This is when a rescue inhaler is needed. The fast-acting medicine can work quickly to prevent serious health complications.

In this article, I will explain what a rescue inhaler is, the two different types of inhalers, how to use a rescue inhaler, as well as when to seek medical assistance for asthma. 

What is a Rescue Inhaler?

Asthma is a common inflammatory condition of the lungs that affects 1 in 13 Americans, including adults and children, with over 60% of sufferers battling allergic asthma

For most, rescue inhalers (or bronchodilators) are prescribed medications that come in a metered dose. These are referred to as metered dose inhalers (MDIs), as they have a dose counter.   

During an asthma attack, your airways swell and produce extra mucus. Your rescue inhaler can help quickly relax muscle bands that tighten around your airways, making it easier to breathe. 

As the medicine enters your lungs, it dilates your airways and creates space for mucus to be coughed up more easily. 

Using a special jet nebulizer, rescue inhalers turn the liquid medication within the canister into a mist that is then inhaled. Inhalers should be used as soon as a person feels their asthma is beginning to flare up. 

As their name suggests, a rescue inhaler works to effectively “rescue” a person from a sudden onset of asthma symptoms or attack.

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Short vs Long-Acting Bronchodilators

If you suffer from ongoing asthma issues, your doctor may prescribe you short-acting or long-acting beta-antagonists commonly referred to as rescue inhalers. 

These inhalers offer more immediate relief than long-acting bronchodilators which help control recurring asthma symptoms or attacks. 

Short-acting bronchodilators

Short-acting beta 2-agonists (also called SABAs) relieve or stop asthma symptoms. These are typically taken to stop an asthma attack. 

Often referred to as “rescue medicine,” this inhaler is used to treat sudden, severe, and/or new asthma symptoms as they are fast-acting. 

If you are reaching for your short-acting bronchodilator more than twice a week, it is advised you speak with your doctor. More than likely, they will prescribe a long-acting bronchodilator. 

You can find short-acting bronchodilators in the following forms:

  • Albuterol (Proventil HFA, Ventolin HFA, ProAir HFA, Accuneb)
  • Levalbuterol (Xopenex HFA, Xoponex nebulizer solution)
  • Albuterol and ipratropium bromide combination (DuoNeb solution, Combivent Respimat)
  • Pirbuterol (Maxair)
  • Metaproterenol, available as a generic solution for nebulizers

Long-acting bronchodilators

As the name suggests, long-acting bronchodilators help control asthma symptoms by keeping the airways open for 12 hours, thus preventing asthma attacks.

They can only be used with inhaled steroids for long-term treatment. 

You can use these rescue inhalers every day twice daily.

This is not a medication you would use in an emergency situation. Rather, this is what is utilized to prevent emergency situations.

Long-acting beta-2 agonists (LABAs) come in the following medications:

  • Salmeterol (Serevent).
  • Formoterol (Foradil).
  • Combination medications that contain the LABA and an inhaled corticosteroid such as salmeterol and fluticasone (Advair); formoterol and mometasone (Dulera); formoterol and budesonide (Symbicort); and more.

How to Use a Rescue Inhaler

Rescue inhalers are relatively simple to use. If you haven’t used yours in a while, you will need to follow the instructions on the canister to prime it first. 

Make sure you keep them stowed in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight, and away from high temperatures or changes in humidity.

Keep the canister away from anything that may cause it to puncture and replace the cap after every use to help maintain the pressure in the canister.

When to use a rescue inhaler

To avoid serious asthma attacks or symptoms, you should reach for your rescue inhaler when you feel your symptoms start to flare up. 

Rescue inhalers are different from everyday inhalers as they are generally needed in somewhat unexpected situations.

It is important to keep your rescue inhaler on you at all times so you can take it in the following situations:

  • Before you will be surrounded by your asthma triggers
  • When you experience unexpected triggers
  • 15-30 minutes before you start exercising

Steps for use

Follow these steps for effective use of a rescue inhaler:

  1. Take the cap off.
  2. Check the mouthpiece to ensure it is clean.
  3. Shake the inhaler firmly 10-15 times before use. 
  4. Exhale as much air out of your lungs as possible.
  5. Hold the inhaler upright with the mouthpiece down. Place your lips around the mouthpiece so that you form a tight seal and no air can escape.
  6. Breathe in slowly as you push down on the inhaler once.
  7. Keep breathing in slowly until your lungs are at capacity.
  8. Take the inhaler out of your mouth and try to hold your breath for 10 seconds. This allows the medicine to reach fully into your lungs.
  9. Slowly release the air out of your lungs through your mouth.

If you are using quick-relief medicine (beta-agonists), wait one or two minutes before you take your next puff. For all other medicines, you do not need to wait between puffs. 

Possible Side Effects

Side effects are not overly common with rescue inhalers. Possible side effects can include:

  • Feeling nervous or shaky
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased heart rate

An upset stomach or trouble sleeping can present in extremely rare cases.

Common Asthma Triggers 

Asthma attacks can occur when you are exposed to certain asthma triggers.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the following are common asthma triggers:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Pets and animal dander
  • Pests such as cockroaches and mice
  • Dust mites
  • Perfume
  • Mold 
  • Outdoor air pollution such as dust particles and smog
  • Certain cleaners and disinfectants
  • Any irritant, cleaning agent, or allergen can trigger asthma attacks

Other possible asthma triggers include:

  • Physical exercise
  • Stress or strong emotions
  • Infections of the airway such as influenza and colds
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • Adverse reactions to certain medicines
  • Bad weather
  • Certain foods or food additives
  • Fragrances

If you suspect you may have asthma symptoms or experiencing an asthma attack you may have any of the following symptoms:

Unfortunately, there is no cure for asthma so learning how to control your symptoms and manage triggers is essential for your health. 

Concerned about asthma? Chat with a medical provider using K Health.

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When to See a Medical Provider for Asthma

If you suspect you or your child has asthma and you have any of the following symptoms, you should get checked out by a medical professional.

They will be able to diagnose you and find the right treatment plan for you. 

For existing asthma patients, you should speak with a medical provider if you feel you need more than the prescribed amount or if you are taking the medication and your symptoms are not improving. There are several other treatment options that may be better suited to you.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which inhalers are rescue inhalers?
Albuterol and levalbuterol are the two rescue inhaler medications that are commonly prescribed in the U.S. They come as metered dose inhalers.
When should I use a rescue inhaler?
You should use your rescue inhaler when you begin to feel your asthma symptoms flare up. You should also use it before you are around your asthma triggers or when you come into contact with them unexpectedly.
What is the difference between an inhaler and a rescue inhaler?
There are two types of inhalers you may be prescribed by your doctor — long-acting bronchodilators and short-acting bronchodilators. Short-acting bronchodilators are also known as rescue inhalers because the medicines work quickly to “rescue” a person if breathing suddenly becomes difficult. Long-acting bronchodilators are preventative inhalers that offer relief from asthma triggers up to 12 hours after a dose.
How often can I use a rescue inhaler?
Most commonly available as metered-dose inhalers, rescue inhalers can prevent an asthma attack or symptoms caused by exercise. One dose can be taken every four to six hours as needed. If you do find yourself using your rescue medication more than four times in a day or four times in a week, seek care with your primary care provider or with K health for a solution to better control your asthma.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN is a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 15 years experience. He received his Undergraduate and Graduate degrees from William Paterson University and his doctoral degree from Drexel University. He has spent his career working in the Emergency Room and Primary Care. The last 6 years of his career have been dedicated to the field of digital medicine. He has created departments geared towards this specialized practice as well as written blogs and a book about the topic.