Albuterol

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 (SABA) bronchodilator. Albuterol is the most common type of SABA used to treat COPD in the United States. People 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. This can cause the muscles that surround the airways to tighten up all of a sudden. This is called a bronchospasm. This can make it hard to breathe because the airways become too narrow.1,2

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 4 to 8 hours.1,2

Bronchospasms and sudden worsening of COPD breathing symptoms can be part of an a COPD flare-up. This is why it is important to quickly treat symptoms and keep the flare-up from getting worse and causing more damage. SABAs such as albuterol are the most effective and fast treatment for this.1,2

People usually take albuterol using a metered-dose inhaler. However, it can also be delivered using a nebulizer.

How do people with COPD use albuterol to manage symptoms?

People with earlier stages of COPD may have bronchospasms from time to time. They may 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.1,2

People with later stages of COPD may have trouble breathing all or most of the time. They will usually be prescribed a maintenance treatment that is taken every day to help reduce or prevent symptoms in the long term. However, most people will still have an albuterol inhaler to quickly relieve sudden or severe symptoms.1,2

Some people with COPD may still have shortness of breath that does not go away, even with maintenance treatment. Their doctor may advise them to regularly use albuterol several times a day to help ease the breathlessness. If inhaled albuterol no longer works to relieve symptoms, a nebulizer can deliver albuterol in a more effective way.1,2

What are the brand names for albuterol?

Albuterol is sold under several different brand names in the United States, including:1,2

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

On January 15, 2019, GlaxoSmithKline announced a generic version of Ventolin HFA®. On February 24, 2020, the FDA approved the first generic of ProAir HFA®. Talk to your doctor if you are taking these medicines and are interested in learning more about the generics.1,2

What are the possible side effects of albuterol?

The most common side effects of albuterol include:1,2

  • Shakiness
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Heart pounding (palpitations)
  • Chest pain
  • Tremors
  • Nervousness

Albuterol may also cause serious side effects. 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:1,2

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

These are not all the possible side effects of albuterol. Talk to your doctor about what to expect or if you experience any changes that concern you during treatment with albuterol.

Things to know about albuterol

Albuterol may interact with other drugs and cause serious side effects. Tell your doctor if you take:1,2

  • Other inhaled medicines or asthma medicines
  • Blood pressure medicine
  • Diuretics (water pills)
  • Heart medicine
  • Antidepressants

There is not enough data to know if albuterol is safe to take while pregnant or breastfeeding. Before taking albuterol, tell your doctor if you are pregnant, plan to become pregnant, or breastfeeding.1,2

Before beginning treatment for COPD, tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you are taking. This includes over-the-counter drugs.

For more information, read the full prescribing information of albuterol.

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Written by: Anna Nicholson and Heather Morse | Last reviewed: August 2021