A doctor holding a light blue asthma inhaler.
The type of asthma inhaler prescribed is based off an individual's symptoms and needs.

Exploring Asthma Inhaler Types

Asthma treatment often involves a combination of medications, lifestyle changes, and reducing triggers. The medications prescribed vary, but asthma inhalers are often part of the treatment plan. In this article we will talk about asthma inhaler types, how they differ, and which is the best for you.

What is an Asthma Inhaler?

An asthma inhaler is a medication used to treat asthma symptoms. It is taken via inhalation instead of orally or intravenously. Different asthma inhaler types are available that treat sudden symptoms or help prevent symptoms from developing.

In many cases, someone with asthma may have more than one type of asthma inhaler prescribed. It is essential to take asthma inhalers as prescribed by your doctor and not to skip medication or use someone else’s inhaler.

Different Types of Inhalers

Different asthma inhaler types are available to treat asthma. The inhalers are classified according to the action they have in the lungs and the type of receptors they bind with to cause that action.

Asthma inhalers include the following:

1. Short-acting Bronchodilators

Short-acting bronchodilator inhalers work quick and treat asthma symptoms, such as wheezing and chest tightness. The inhalers relax the muscles surrounding the airways and open up the lungs.

Example of short-acting inhalers include:

  • Albuterol
  • Xopenex

2. Long-acting Bronchodilators

Long-acting asthma inhalers often work on the beta receptors in the airways. This type of inhaler is called a long-acting beta-agonist (LABA). There is also another type of long-acting bronchodilators called an anticholinergic that also dilates the airways.

Both LABA’s and anticholinergics take longer to open up the airways and make breathing easier. But they last longer than short-acting inhalers in preventing asthma symptoms.

Examples of long-acting bronchodilator inhalers include:

  • Formoterol
  • Salmeterol
  • Ipratropium

3. Steroids

Steroid inhalers are often part of an asthma treatment plan. Steroid inhalers reduce swelling and inflammation in the lungs. By reducing the swelling, it makes it easier to breathe. But steroid inhalers are not intended for sudden symptoms. Instead, they are taken daily to keep inflammation at bay and prevent asthma attacks.

Examples of asthma steroid inhalers includes:

  • Flovent (fluticasone propionate)
  • Qvar (beclomethasone dipropionate)
  • Pulmicort (budesonide)

4. Combination Inhalers

Combination inhalers are also used to treat asthma. Combination inhalers usually have both a long-acting bronchodilator and a steroid. Taking the two medications together is often easier than taking two separate inhalers.

Some doctors also prefer to prescribe a steroid when they prescribe a long-acting beta-agonist (LABA) inhaler. Certain combination inhalers are only FDA approved to treat COPD. But other combination inhalers are approved for the treatment of asthma, including the following:

  • Symbicort (combines the steroid budesonide and formoterol, which is an LABA)
  • Advair (combines fluticasone, which is a steroid with formoterol, which is an LABA)
  • Breo (combines the steroid fluticasone with an LABA vilanterol)
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Differences in Asthma Inhaler Devices

Different delivery devices are available for asthma medications. The devices are all under the umbrella term of “inhaler”. But the devices work differently. Asthma inhaler delivery devices include:

  • HFA (formally called MDI): An HFA inhaler uses an aerosol canister with a mouthpiece. You place the mouthpiece in your mouth and push on the canister, which delivers a short burst of medication. An HFA inhaler is best used with an aerochamber attached to the inhaler. The aerochamber helps the user get more medication into their lungs.
  • Dry powder: Dry powder inhalers deliver asthma medication in the form of a powder using a special type of inhaler.
  • Soft mist inhaler: A soft mist inhaler produces a mist that comes out slower than an HFA inhaler. This type of inhaler is easy to take, and user errors are uncommon.

How Are Inhalers Similar and Different?


Different types of asthma inhalers are often prescribed as part of a treatment plan. They work together to prevent asthma symptoms and treat symptoms when they occur.

Asthma inhalers have some similarities and differences. One similarity is all inhalers are taken by directly inhaling the medication into the lungs. There are also some inhalers that have the same active ingredient but are from different manufacturers and have different names.

Inhalers are also different regarding their main therapeutic effect. Most inhalers either relax the airways and dilate them, or they decrease inflammation and swelling.
Also, both short-term and long-term bronchodilators are similar in that they work to relax the muscles around the airways and make it easier to breathe.


But there are also differences. Short-term inhalers work fast to treat asthma symptoms. But the effects usually only last a few hours. While long-term bronchodilator inhalers take longer to kick in, but their effects last much longer.

If someone needs quick relief for asthma symptoms, a fast-acting inhaler is better than a long-acting. Someone who has mild asthma may only need a fast-acting inhaler on occasion and not need steroids or long-acting inhalers. But a person with persistent asthma may be better suited for a few different types of inhalers, including both short-acting and long-acting bronchodilators to reduce symptoms.

In Review

Regardless of what type of asthma inhaler you take, make sure you understand why you are taking it, what symptoms it treats, and how often to use it. Following your asthma action plan and taking inhalers as prescribed can help prevent asthma attacks and manage symptoms.