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The in's and out's of Proper Inhaler Use

Medically reviewed by Carmen Pope, BPharm. Last updated on March 26, 2023.

Melody L. Berg


Inhaled medications are used for treating breathing problems such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Unlike medications that are swallowed, inhalers are designed to get the medicine directly to the lungs.

Many types of inhalers are available for treating breathing problems. Some inhaled medicines are used every day to help control breathing problems (controller medications). In contrast, other inhaled medicines are used only as needed (rescue inhalers) when you feel short of breath or other symptoms.

Controller vs rescue inhalers, what is the difference?

It's important to understand the difference between the two types of medicines. For example, you should not use controller medications for immediate relief of asthma symptoms. Likewise, you should not use rescue inhalers in place of controller medications since rescue inhalers are usually meant for immediate relief of symptoms.

There are many different types of inhalers, including metered-dose inhalers, dry powder inhalers, or those that require placement of a capsule into an inhaler device. Each of these inhalers has a technique that is unique to that inhaler. That's why it's important to use the inhaler correctly to make sure you are getting the most out of your medicine. There are also combination inhalers that contain more than one type of medication - each with a different purpose.

Some people, especially those who have COPD, may have more than one inhaler that they use regularly. In these cases, taking the inhaled medicines in a certain order may improve symptoms more quickly. For example, some healthcare professionals recommend first using a short-acting medication, such as albuterol, to open airways and improve breathing quickly. The patient may also use a long-acting inhaled medication or an inhaled corticosteroid on a regular basis to control or prevent symptoms. Some people may be prescribed a combination inhaler, such as Airsupra (albuterol plus budesonide), that combines a reliever with a long-acting preventer.

Healthcare professionals believe that taking the medications in the above order helps them get into the lungs and work more effectively. That's where your pharmacist or doctor comes in. He or she can demonstrate the proper way to use your inhaler and then watch you use your inhaler and provide feedback, as necessary.

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AHFS® Patient Medication Information is used with permission. ©2024, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, Inc. (ASHP). The ASHP Data is a part of the AHFS Drug Information®️; ASHP is not responsible for the accuracy of transpositions from the original context.