The difference between a reliever and preventer inhaler for asthma

Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory lung disease that is marked by recurrent breathing problems. Although breathing may proceed normally most of the time, there are episodes when the air passages in their lungs become narrow, making breathing more difficult (an asthma attack). The symptoms can be mild or can progress to a life-threatening situation, requiring emergency treatment. In some people, the episodes of asthma are triggered by allergens. This is common in children. In others, the episode may be triggered by an infection, exercise, cold air, psychological stress or other factors.

In the past, asthma drug treatment mainly consisted of bronchodilators which are drugs used to dilate the airways. The fast-acting bronchodilators that are inhaled are often referred to as “reliever” treatment since they are used during an asthma attack. Since recent research has indicated that asthma is predominantly an inflammatory illness, many asthma drugs are aimed at decreasing the inflammation. If a person has to use their rescue inhaler more than twice a week, a drug used to decrease the inflammation is usually advised. These drugs are often referred to “preventer” treatment, as they are used to control the inflammation. 

Asthma management now utilises a combination of “preventer” and “reliever” treatment. 

During an asthma attack, the “reliever” medication – normally Salbutamol (Ventolin) – should be used in order to relieve the spasm in the airways. Preventer inhalers do not normally have a role in the acute management of an asthma attack unless a healthcare professional specifies otherwise. 

Traditionally, inhalers had different colours in order to distinguish between reliever and preventer inhalers. Reliever inhalers were blue (indicating Salbutamol) and preventer inhalers were brown (indicated an inhaled steroid). However, the number of inhalers available has increased dramatically and these colours cannot be relied on. 

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