Bronchodilators help relieve asthma, COPD and other lung condition symptoms by relaxing the muscles around your airways and helping clear mucus from your lungs. There are long-acting forms and short-acting forms. You may take them as an inhaler, nebulizer solution or tablet. Side effects may include dry mouth, hyperactivity, nausea and vomiting.
A bronchodilator (pronounced “bron-ko-di-lay-ter”) is a type of medication that relieves the symptoms of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung conditions. It quickly relaxes the muscle bands that tighten around your airways (bronchi). When those muscles relax, more air comes in and out of your lungs so you can breathe comfortably.
Bronchodilators also help clear mucus from your lungs. As your airways open, mucus moves more freely, which allows you to cough mucus out of your body easily.
Bronchodilators are primarily available as inhalers and nebulizer (a battery-powered machine that creates a fine spray) solutions.
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There are two forms of bronchodilators:
There are three main types of bronchodilators: beta 2-agonists, anticholinergics and theophylline.
Beta 2-agonists exist in short-acting forms and long-acting forms.
Short-acting beta 2-agonists (SABAs) quickly open your airways to stop asthma symptoms. People sometimes refer to SABAs as “reliever” or “rescue” medicines because they’re the best medications for treating sudden, severe or new asthma symptoms.
SABAs work within 15 to 20 minutes and last for four to six hours. You may also use them 15 to 20 minutes before exercising to prevent asthma symptoms that arise from physical activity.
In inhaled forms, SABA medications include:
You may take long-acting beta-2 agonists (LABAs) twice a day for long-term control and maintenance of your airways. You should also use LABAs with an inhaled corticosteroid to treat asthma. Corticosteroids help reduce swelling in your airways and lungs. LABAs are also effective in treating exercise-induced asthma.
LABAs are available as a dry powder inhaler (DPI). These medications include:
Anticholinergics are available as ipratropium bromide (Atrovent®) and tiotropium bromide (Spiriva Respimat®). They block the effects of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that your body makes.
Ipratropium bromide is available as an inhaler and a nebulizer solution. You can use it up to four times a day.
Tiotropium bromide is available as an inhaler. Depending on which kind your healthcare provider prescribes, you can use it once a day or four times a day.
Anticholinergics aren’t quick-relief medications. However, they’re effective in controlling difficult asthma symptoms.
Theophylline (Uniphyl®) is available as a pill that you take with water. You take it one time each day to help control severe asthma symptoms. However, theophylline is no longer a preferred treatment method.
When you take theophylline, you must take blood tests to ensure you’re receiving the proper amount of medicine.
The side effects of bronchodilators vary according to which type you use.
Side effects of beta 2-agonists include:
Some beta 2-agonists, including albuterol, are available as pills or syrups. You may have more side effects when you take these forms because they’re a higher dosage. You also absorb them through your bloodstream.
Side effects of anticholinergic drugs include:
Anticholinergic drugs may make it difficult to urinate (pee). Talk to your healthcare provider if you have any conditions that affect your bladder. These conditions may include benign prostate enlargement (BPE), bladder stones or prostate cancer.
Side effects of theophylline include:
No, a bronchodilator isn’t a steroid.
You may use inhaled steroids daily to help prevent asthma and COPD symptoms. They help reduce airway inflammation.
It’s important to use your bronchodilator inhaler properly to get the full medication dosage. The following steps will help you properly use your bronchodilator inhaler:
Your body may fail to respond to the medicine if you use your bronchodilator too much. Overuse can also cause your body to become overly sensitive to asthma or COPD triggers. Triggers may include smoke, pollution, dust and chemical fumes.
If you’re using a rescue inhaler, wait about one minute between each recommended puff.
If you’re using a long-acting beta-2 agonist, use it twice a day. You may use it in the morning and six to eight hours later.
Take an anticholinergic around the same time every day.
Talk to your healthcare provider if you have any symptoms that affect your lungs. Symptoms may include difficulty breathing, coughing or wheezing. They can order pulmonary function testing (lung functions tests). Lung function tests help diagnose a lung condition that a bronchodilator may treat.
It’s also a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider if you need to use SABAs more than twice per week. Using SABAs more than twice a week is a sign of unstable asthma. Your healthcare provider may wish to change the dose of any long-term control medicines that you take.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease affect your airways. Bronchodilators are medications that can help you control the symptoms of a lung condition.
Always follow your healthcare provider’s medication plan. If your bronchodilators aren’t controlling your symptoms, reach out to your healthcare provider right away. They can answer your questions, address any concerns and find the right care plan for you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/09/2022.
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