How Albuterol Inhalers Work and How to Use Them

How Do Albuterol Inhalers Work?

Normally, air moves easily into and out of the lungs through a network of airways. However, during an asthma attack, the muscles around these airways tighten. This narrows the airways and makes it harder to breathe -- this is called bronchospasm.
Albuterol is part of a class of drugs called beta-adrenergic receptor agonists, or beta agonists for short. Beta agonists stimulate beta receptors in the body, including those on the muscles around airways. This stimulation causes the muscles to relax, which opens up the airways and allows more air to get into and through the lungs.
The medication also has some effects on decreasing the activity of mast cells in the lungs, which play an important role in inflammation and allergic reactions.

Effects of Albuterol Inhalers

In clinical studies, albuterol inhalers started working within 6 to 15 minutes, with effects lasting for three or four hours, on average. Studies have also shown that using an inhaler 15 to 30 minutes before exercise can help prevent exercise-induced asthma symptoms. In addition, studies have shown that the new HFA albuterol inhalers are just as effective as the older inhalers.

When and How to Use an Inhaler

Some general considerations for when and how to use an albuterol inhaler include the following:
  • Some people use their inhaler only when they need it (during an asthma attack), while others use it regularly to help prevent attacks.
  • You should "test spray" each albuterol inhaler before your first use, or if you have not used it for a long period of time. To test spray the inhaler, spray it into the air by pressing on the top of the canister.
  • Shake your albuterol inhaler gently before each use.
  • Wait at least one minute in between inhalations.
  • It is important that you learn exactly how to use your albuterol inhaler. It may be difficult at first and may require practice.
  • The spray should be inhaled into the lungs, not sprayed into the back of the throat and swallowed. To accomplish this, you will need to breathe in while spraying the inhaler.
  • Most people put the mouthpiece of the inhaler directly into their mouths. However, many healthcare professionals now recommend placing the inhaler an inch or two away from the mouth. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best way for you to use it.
  • Each albuterol inhaler contains 200 sprays. Try to keep track of approximately how many sprays you have used in order to know when to replace the inhaler. Do not place the inhaler in water to see if it is empty (although it was recommended to do so in the past). One inhaler (Ventolin HFA) has a counter that automatically keeps track of how many sprays are used.
  • For albuterol inhalers to work properly, they must be taken as prescribed. The medication will not work if you stop taking it.
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