Inhalers are small, hand-held devices that deliver medication directly into your lungs. They treat lung conditions, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Albuterol, the most common medication used in inhalers, is only available by prescription. But there are a variety of over-the-counter (OTC) options used to treat mild asthma symptoms.
- Rx inhalers are covered by your health insurance, and you usually pay a copay. OTC inhalers may be covered by your insurance if you have a flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA).
- Rx inhalers are only available with a prescription from a doctor.
- OTC inhalers are available at drugstores, and can be purchased by anyone. No prescription is needed.
- OTC inhalers offer temporary relief of more mild symptoms.
- Severe cases of asthma usually require Rx inhalers.
Primatene Mist is a metered dose inhaler (MDI) available OTC. Its original formula used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to propel the medicine, but the CFCs were phased out due to their potential to deplete the ozone layer.
Primatene Mist’s reformulation is CFC-free, but it contains the same active ingredient, epinephrine. Epinephrine is a bronchodilator that works by relaxing your airway muscles, opening them up so that you can breathe easier. The medicine comes in a pressurized metal canister.
Each inhaler contains 160 metered doses, and includes a counter telling you how many doses you have left. You can use this inhaler up to 8 times per day, but you must wait 4 hours between each dose.
Bonus: Primatene Mist is the only OTC inhaler approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Asthmanefrin is a CFC-free OTC inhaler. Asthmanefrin’s website claims that it’s been used by children and adults for over 100 years. Its active ingredients consist of two types of epinephrine.
The medicine for the inhaler comes in individually foil-wrapped plastic vials. Each vial is good for 7 days after removing the foil. You can save a little money by only buying the actual inhaler once, and buying refill packs thereafter.
You can use Asthmanefrin up to 8 times per day, making sure to wait at least 3 hours between doses. You should get relief within 20 minutes of inhaling a dose.
Bonus: The plastic vials are recyclable.
Vicks Personal Steam Inhaler
The Vicks Personal Steam Inhaler does not contain any medicine or active ingredients. It uses steam and optional menthol Vicks VapoPads (sold separately) to soothe irritated lungs due to asthma, cough, or cold.
The built-in face mask delivers targeted relief directly into your mouth and nose. Moisture and humidity can help open up swollen bronchial passages, and soothe sore tissue in your throat and lungs.
Fill the tank with water, then the self-regulating heater will safely boil the water. Use the adjustable steam control to mix cold air into the steam to your comfort level. Each treatment lasts 5 to 15 minutes, and it’s safe to use multiple times per day.
Bonus: This also works as a face steamer, which can be helpful for softening skin and using wash-off face masks.
- It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before trying a new medical product, even if it’s OTC.
- OTC inhalers are not a replacement for Rx ones. If you have an Rx inhaler, continue using it as directed.
- You should not use Asthmanefrin if you’re currently taking a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).
- OTC inhalers may interact with certain medications, especially stimulants and other medications that impact neurotransmitters. Check with your doctor if you currently take any medication.
- Carefully read the dosage instructions. Do not take more doses than the directed amount, and wait the stated amount of time between doses (usually 3 to 4 hours).
- If you have any side effects or new symptoms, discontinue use and contact your doctor.
There are potential side effects associated with using OTC inhalers. Here are some of the most common:
- elevated heart rate
- elevated blood pressure
- lost or lessened appetite
- trouble sleeping
- sore throat
If you experience troubling side effects, stop using the inhaler and contact your doctor. If you have severe side effects, like chest pain or severe shortness of breath, call 911 or go to an emergency room right away.
- Rx Inhalers. Prescription inhalers, like albuterol, remain the gold standard for treating asthma.
- Bronkaid caplets. OTC expectorant pills loosen phlegm and thin bronchial secretions. They may provide temporary relief from wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.
- Hot shower, bath, sauna, or steam room. Steamy, humid air and hot water can provide relief by opening up your bronchial passages and soothing irritated tissue in your sinuses.
- Mentholated chest rub. Vicks VapoRub is the classic mentholated chest rub, but there are many brands available. Rub it onto your chest, then breathe normally. You’ll inhale the menthol, which can help soothe and open up your sinuses.
- Caffeine. Similar to epinephrine, caffeine’s stimulant properties can mildly open up your bronchial passages. A
2010 scientific reviewfound that caffeine’s beneficial effects for treating asthma can last up to 4 hours. Try caffeinated coffee or tea for mild asthma symptoms.
- Breathing exercises. Certain breathing techniques can help relax and open up your bronchial passages. Check out this Healthline article for details on six breathing techniques for asthma.
You should see a doctor if you:
- are not getting any relief from OTC inhalers
- experience severe side effects or feel worse after using an OTC inhaler
- have severe wheezing or can’t catch your breath
- have asthma symptoms that impact your daily life or your work
- experience severe chest pain
- have asthma symptoms that are so severe you can’t speak
- have more than two asthma attacks per week
Can you get an inhaler filled without seeing a doctor?
The three inhalers detailed in this article are all available over the counter. You do not need to see a doctor or get a prescription to obtain them.
Are OTC asthma inhalers safe?
Currently, Primatene Mist is the only OTC inhaler that’s
All medications carry a degree of risk. See the list of potential side effects above. OTC inhalers are generally considered safe, but they’re not a replacement for prescription inhalers.
Where can I purchase OTC inhalers?
OTC inhalers are widely available wherever OTC medications are sold. This includes drugstores, like Walgreens and CVS, as well as retailers, like Target and Amazon.
How much do OTC inhalers cost?
Primatene Mist tends to cost about $25 to $48. Asthmanefrin generally goes for $30 to $60. The Vicks Personal Steam Inhaler retails for around $40.