Albuterol is an inhaled medicine used to relieve symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), such as breathlessness and wheezing. Albuterol is a type of short-acting beta-agonist bronchodilator, which is called SABA for short. Albuterol is the most common type of SABA used to treat COPD in the United States. Patients with COPD are usually prescribed albuterol as a key part of their COPD treatment plans.

How does albuterol work?

Albuterol can provide quick relief for bronchospasms caused by COPD. People with COPD have airways that are irritated and inflamed, which can cause the muscles that surround the airways to tighten up all of a sudden. This is called a bronchospasm, and it can make it hard to breathe because the airways become too narrow.

To relieve a bronchospasm, albuterol quickly affects the cells in the lungs in a way that relaxes the muscles around the airways and opens up the breathing passages. Albuterol starts to take effect quickly, within minutes. Its effect usually lasts for between 4 and 8 hours.

Bronchospasms and sudden worsening of COPD breathing symptoms can be part of an acute exacerbation, or COPD flare-up. For this reason, it is important to treat the symptoms quickly to keep the flare-up from getting worse and causing more damage. SABAs such as albuterol are the most effective and fast treatment for this.

Patients usually take albuterol using a metered-dose inhaler. However, it can also be delivered using a nebulizer in some cases.

How do people with COPD use albuterol to manage symptoms?

People with earlier stages of COPD may have bronchospasms occasionally, and use their albuterol inhaler to relieve them as needed. Albuterol is sometimes called a “rescue” inhaler because it eases shortness of breath and can prevent a flare-up from getting worse.

People with later stages of COPD may have trouble breathing all of the time or most of the time. They will usually be prescribed a maintenance treatment that is taken regularly every day to help reduce or prevent symptoms in the long term. However, most people will still have an albuterol inhaler to relieve sudden or severe symptoms quickly.

Some COPD patients may still have shortness of breath that does not go away, even with maintenance treatment. They may be advised by healthcare providers to use albuterol regularly several times a day to help ease the breathlessness. If inhaled albuterol no longer works to relieve symptoms, then using a nebulizer can deliver albuterol in a more effective way.

What are the brand names for albuterol?

Albuterol is sold under several different brand names in the US:

  • ProAir HFA®
  • ProAir RespiClick®
  • Proventil HFA®
  • Proventil®
  • ReliOn Ventolin HFA®
  • Ventolin®
  • Ventolin HFA®
  • AccuNeb® – for use in nebulizers

On January 15, 2019, GSK announced a generic version of Ventolin HFA® and on February 24, 2020, the FDA approved the first generic of ProAir HFA®. Talk to your doctor if you are taking these medications and are interested in learning more about the generics.

What are the potential side effects of albuterol?

Taking albuterol can cause side effects for some people. The most common ones are:

  • Shakiness
  • Fast or irregular heart beat
  • Heart pounding (palpitations)
  • Chest pain
  • Tremors
  • Nervousness

If any of these side effects are severe or won’t go away, it's important to contact your healthcare provider immediately.

Albuterol can also cause some more serious side effects for a small number of people. You should stop taking albuterol and seek medical help right away if you have difficulty breathing after using the medicine, or if you have any signs of allergic reaction such as:

  • Hives
  • Rash
  • Itching
  • Swelling in the face, mouth, or body
  • Difficulty swallowing

It is important to note that this is not exhaustive list of side effects. Talk to your doctor if you experience any adverse events.

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Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last reviewed: August 2020.