There are various different types of asthma inhalers. They contain different types of medication, to provide fast relief or long-acting prevention of asthma symptoms. Asthma inhalers also have different mechanisms. While some require you to pump, others are breath-activated. Whichever asthma inhaler you are using, you must make sure you understand how it works.
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Asthma inhalers come in various colours and shapes for different uses. Each colour indicates a different type of medication. The famous blue inhaler (Ventolin) for example contains Salbutamol to treat acute asthma symptoms.
There are three types of asthma inhalers that use different mechanisms to release the medication. These include metered-dose inhalers (MDIs), MDIs with a spacer, which gives more time to inhale the drug, and dry-powder inhalers – also known as breath-activated inhalers.
The most common asthma inhalers are the brown inhaler (for prevention) and the blue inhaler (for attacks of asthma and/or prevention).
The standard metered-dose inhaler includes the blue inhaler (e.g. Ventolin) and has been used for several decades. It consists of a small can fitted into a plastic body with a mouthpiece. Each time you press the canister into the boot, one dose of drug is released. You need to press and inhale the medication. This type of inhaler is also known as an evohaler.
Although this is the most commonly used inhaler, the MDI is often used incorrectly. Patients often forget to shake it before pressing, inhale at the wrong time or forget to hold their breath after inhalation.
Metered-dose inhalers that come with a spacer make it easier to inhale the correct dose. The spacer is an oval plastic container. On one end you insert your MDI and on the other end there is a mouthpiece.
It means that you first release the medication into the spacer and then inhale it slowly from the plastic container through the mouthpiece. this delivers the dose straight to your lungs. The MDI with a spacer is particularly useful for people - and children with asthma – who lack the coordination skills to use the metered-dose inhaler correctly.
The spacer should be washed and cleaned regularly as your saliva can make its walls sticky and prevent the medicine from flowing smoothly from one end to the other. The spacer is also known as a chamber, depending on the brand you use.
This kind of inhaler contains dry-powder. You do not need to pump or press for the medication to be released. All you need to do is take a deep breath which will make you inhale a single dose. There are different types of dry powder asthma inhalers and they usually rely on a manual mechanism to release one dose of the powder into the mouthpiece prior to the inhalation.
The most common dry powder inhalers are the turbohaler and the diskhaler. For both systems, you have to turn or twist the body until a “click” sound signals that a dose has been released and is ready to be inhaled.
This is the most common group of inhalers (also called reliever inhalers) which contain bronchodilator drugs (usually salbutamol). Bronchodilator simply means that the drug allows the airways in your lungs to dilate and let more air in.
Blue inhalers are great short-acting treatments: they can relieve the symptoms of an asthma attack within minutes. They are also commonly used as a long-term treatment, following a specific prescription; e.g. 2-3 doses a day for a certain period of time (at least several months).
The brown inhaler (sometimes also red) is a prevention treatment to be taken every day. It contains steroids that reduce the inflammation in your lungs. Depending on how severe your symptoms are, your doctor might prescribe you more or less frequent doses.
An average treatment with the brown inhaler consists of about two doses per day, to be taken for several months. Note that it can take somewhere between 2-6 weeks for the medication to be fully effective, so this is definitely a long-term treatment that can’t be used to relieve the symptoms of an attack.
On the upside, if you correctly follow your prescription, you may not need to use any inhaler later on in your life. However, note that just as with the blue inhaler, early treatment with the brown inhaler is crucial to get rid of asthma.
These are less common and come in a different colour, as they're usually green inhalers. They also belong to the class of bronchodilators and they are effective for up to 12 hours. Salmeterol is one of the most common long-acting bronchodilators, along with Formoterol. In some cases, preventive treatments combine long-acting bronchodilators with steroids, for instance if your symptoms are particularly difficult to control. Some of these combined treatments come as purple inhalers.
The idea with all these colours is to help you choose the right one when you’re experiencing an attack, rather than having to recognise the name of the medication on the inhaler. When you need immediate relief from your symptoms – from breathlessness to acute asthma attack – always go for the blue or purple inhaler.
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