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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Albuterol, also known as albuterol sulfate, is the active ingredient in the reliever inhaler used to treat respiratory conditions. It is also commonly known by the brand name Ventolin or Proventil. This prescription-only medication can also come in tablets, capsules, or nebules for people who cannot use an inhaler effectively. Albuterol, also known as salbutamol in some regions, belongs to a class of drugs called short-acting beta-agonists (SABAs), which work by relaxing the muscles in the airways, thereby improving airflow to the lungs.

How does albuterol work?

Albuterol exerts its therapeutic effects by binding to "beta-2 adrenergic" receptors located on the cells lining the airways. This binding activates a cascade of intracellular events that relax the airway's smooth muscle, expanding the airways and improving airflow. By dilating the bronchial tubes, salbutamol helps alleviate symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath associated with asthma exacerbations.

Who is it for?

The primary use of albuterol is to help relieve breathlessness in patients with respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD, and is suitable for most adults and children. Triggers such as allergens and exercise can cause the airways to tighten, leading to breathlessness. This is when the inhaler is most needed. Unlike other inhalers, albuterol works within 5 minutes of inhalation, giving almost instant relief.

Forms of albuterol and how to use

Albuterol is available in various dosage forms, including metered-dose inhalers (MDIs), dry powder inhalers (DPIs), nebulizer solutions, and oral tablets. The recommended dosage and administration instructions may vary depending on the specific formulation and the severity of the patient's condition. MDIs and DPIs deliver the medication directly to the lungs through inhalation, rapidly relieving symptoms. Nebulizer solutions are aerosolized and inhaled through a mask or mouthpiece, making them suitable for individuals with difficulty using inhalers. Oral tablets are less commonly used and are typically reserved for specific situations, such as severe exacerbations or long-term management of COPD.

Albuterol vs. other inhalers

In addition to albuterol, several other inhalers are available for the treatment of asthma and COPD. These include long-acting beta-agonists (LABAs), inhaled corticosteroids (ICS), combination inhalers containing both LABAs and ICS, and other bronchodilators. While albuterol is a short-acting bronchodilator used for quick relief of acute symptoms, LABAs provide long-term control of asthma symptoms by maintaining bronchodilation over a 12-24 hour period. ICS, on the other hand, reduce airway inflammation and are often used as maintenance therapy to prevent asthma exacerbations. Combination inhalers containing both LABAs and ICS offer the benefits of both medications in a single device, providing both symptom relief and long-term control.

Can I get albuterol over the counter?

In the US, albuterol inhalers are available on prescription. Patients with a confirmed diagnosis of asthma or COPD can obtain albuterol inhalers through a prescription from their healthcare provider.

How to use an albuterol inhaler

Depending on which brand of albuterol you may have, the instructions on how to use it may differ.

For Ventolin:

  • Start by removing the cap and shake the canister gently.
  • Hold the inhaler with your thumb on the base below the mouthpiece and your index finger on the top of the canister.
  • Breathe out as far as is comfortable.
  • Without breathing back in, place the mouthpiece in your mouth and close your lips around it.
  • Breathe in through your mouth normally.
  • Just before a deep breath, press down on the top of the canister and take a deep, steady breath.
  • Remove the inhaler from the lips and hold your breath for a few seconds, or as long as is comfortable.
  • Allow for at least 30 seconds before you take another puff.

Are there any side effects?

As with all medications, there is the potential for serious side effects, such as an allergic reaction. You should stop taking albuterol and seek urgent medical attention if you develop a skin rash or swelling of your tongue, mouth, lips, face or throat.

If you have high blood pressure, diabetes, low potassium, or any questions before starting to use albuterol, you should speak with your pharmacist or doctor.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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