A rescue inhaler is a type of inhaler that dispenses medication to relieve or stop the symptoms of an asthma attack. Asthma is a chronic disease affecting your lungs. It causes narrowing or inflammation of the airways that leads to symptoms such as:

  • wheezing
  • tightness in your chest
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing

The coughing associated with asthma is most common in the morning or evening. Asthma has no cure, but it can be controlled with proper management and treatment.

One type of asthma medication contained within an inhaler is called a bronchodilator. Bronchodilators help relieve asthma symptoms by relaxing the muscles of your airway. This allows more air to enter your lungs. Another benefit of bronchodilators is that they allow for mucus to be cleared or coughed up more easily because they make your airway more open.

There are two main types of bronchodilators: short-acting and long-acting. A rescue inhaler uses a short-acting bronchodilator.

Short-acting bronchodilators

This type works quickly to relieve the symptoms of an asthma attack. Your rescue inhalers should relieve your symptoms in 15 to 20 minutes. The effects of the medication typically last between four and six hours.

In addition to relieving the symptoms of an asthma attack, a rescue inhaler can be used prior to a strenuous workout to help prevent an asthma attack from occurring.

Long-acting bronchodilators

Long-acting bronchodilators help prevent asthma attacks by keeping the airway open. These types of bronchodilators are used for long-term asthma management. They’re often used with anti-inflammatory medications that reduce swelling and mucus in the airway.

You should use your rescue inhaler when you first start to notice your asthma symptoms. Once asthma symptoms become intense, you could be experiencing an asthma attack. Read one person’s personal account of what it feels like to have an asthma attack.

Symptoms of an asthma attack may include:

  • coughing or wheezing
  • tightness in your chest
  • difficulty breathing

The cause of asthma itself is still unclear, but there are several things that are known to trigger asthma attacks. It’s important to know what your asthma triggers are. This will help you avoid situations or environments that could lead to an asthma attack.

Common asthma triggers include:

  • allergens such as pollen, mold, and animal dander
  • air pollution, such as smog and dust particles
  • irritants in the air, such as cigarette smoke, wood fire, and strong fumes
  • infections of the airway, such as colds and the flu
  • exercise

You should carry your rescue inhaler with you at all times so it’s nearby in the event of an asthma attack.

You should never use your rescue inhaler in place of your long-term asthma control medications.

Side effects from using your rescue inhaler can include:

  • feeling nervous or shaky
  • increased heart rate
  • hyperactivity

In rare cases, you may also experience an upset stomach or trouble sleeping.

If you have asthma, you should discuss an asthma action plan with your doctor. This is a written plan that both you and your doctor develop for how to control your asthma. An asthma action plan should contain the following details:

  • the medications you’re taking to control your asthma
  • when your medications should be taken
  • how to handle asthma attacks
  • when you should call your doctor or go to the emergency room

If your child has asthma, all caregivers should be aware of your child’s asthma action plan.

You should speak with your doctor if you find that you need to use your rescue inhaler more than twice per week. This is a sign that the dosage of the long-acting asthma medication you’re taking may need to be adjusted.

If you’re having an asthma attack, it’s important to remain calm. You should use your rescue inhaler as soon as you begin to feel the symptoms of an asthma attack occurring.

Continue to monitor your symptoms. You should feel relief within 20 minutes after using the rescue inhaler. Even if your rescue inhaler works to relieve the symptoms of your asthma attack, it’s a good idea to call your doctor to follow up.

Asthma attacks can sometimes be serious, requiring treatment in the emergency room. If your rescue inhaler doesn’t relieve the symptoms of your asthma attack, seek immediate emergency medical care.

Call your local emergency services if you have the following symptoms:

  • rapid breathing during which your skin sucks in around your ribs while inhaling
  • rapid movement of the nostrils
  • ribs, stomach, or both moving in and out deeply and rapidly
  • blue coloring of the face, fingernails, or lips
  • chest that doesn’t deflate when you are exhaling

A rescue inhaler is used to relieve the symptoms of an asthma attack quickly. It should be used as soon as you feel your asthma beginning to flare up. You should carry your rescue inhaler with you at all times in case you need it.

If your rescue inhaler isn’t working to relieve your asthma attack or if you have symptoms of a severe asthma attack, you should go to the emergency room immediately.

A rescue inhaler should never be used in place of your normal long-term asthma control medication. If you find that you’re using your rescue inhaler more than twice per week, talk to your doctor about adjusting your asthma medication dosage or management plan.