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What is a Bronchodilator?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2016
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A bronchodilator is a medication that is used by many people with respiratory conditions, particularly things like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These medications are frequently inhaled, and they cause the passages of the airway to expand and relax so that breathing difficulty is reduced. There are several types of bronchodilator medicines and it is important to understand the distinction between the types.

Asthma sufferers often carry an inhaler which they may use every 2-6 hours by prescription and also use as needed should an asthmatic reaction begin to occur. These may be called short-acting inhalers because they go to work quickly to relieve symptoms but the symptoms may only be relieved for a short period of time. For severe asthma attacks, a short acting bronchodilator might be used in nebulized form instead of in inhaler form, since it may be slightly more effective. Medications of this type include albuterol and alupent. Sometimes combined short and long acting bronchodilator meds are used together in inhalers or in nebulizers or a short acting med is used with an inhaled steroid.

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The second type of bronchodilator is called long acting and these may control asthma symptoms for up to twelve hours at a time. It is very important to understand that a long-acting medication does not always act quickly. Some of these medications have been associated with death in asthma patients when they’re not used with a short acting medication or with steroids which might help to reduce swelling of the airway. Types of long-acting bronchodilator medications include Advair® and Symbicort®, and it is vital that people make an informed choice before taking these medications. In all cases they should not be used if wheezing suddenly gets worse, and people should get immediate medical care.

Another class of bronchodilator medications is used primarily in the treatment of emphysema and chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder. They are called anticholenergics, whereas the previous two types are short acting and long acting beta agonists. They may be used regularly, but people who suffer periodic wheezing might also use a short acting beta agonist like albuterol, which tends to be more effective for sudden onset of breathing difficulties.

There are some over the counter bronchodilators that contain medication like adrenaline (epinephrine), and these might work briefly. They are usually not strong enough for those people who suffer regular asthma attacks. Many medications that increase adrenalin or energy could be considered weak bronchodilators, like caffeine or methamphetamine. One recommendation frequently given to asthma sufferers is to use an inhaler and have a cup of strong black coffee during an attack. On its own though, caffeine is a poor substitute for prescribed medications.

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