Understanding COPD inhalers and bronchodilators

An elderly couple enjoy a swingset together.

If you’re living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), your healthcare provider may have been prescribed a medicine to help you breathe easier. COPD medicine is often taken through an inhaler, a device that delivers medicine by allowing you to breathe it in. This medicine relaxes your airway muscles in order to make breathing easier.1

Types of COPD inhalers

COPD inhalers can be confusing and many people with COPD may have more than 1 inhaler.2 Different inhalers fill different functions. There are two main types of inhalers:

  • Controller inhalers, also known as maintenance inhalers, prevent and control symptoms and are used on a daily basis as prescribed.
  • Rescue inhalers relieve sudden shortness of breath and are used as needed.

What are bronchodilators?

Bronchodilators are medications often prescribed to help treat COPD symptoms. This medicine is often taken through an inhaler. Bronchodilators fall into 2 categories: short-acting and long-acting.3

Short-acting bronchodilators

Short-acting bronchodilators work quickly, often helping to ease symptoms in just a few minutes. However, they are typically only effective for a few hours. Some short-acting bronchodilators are used in rescue inhalers, but they can also be prescribed for maintenance/controller inhalers.4

Long-acting bronchodilators

Long-acting bronchodilators are often used for maintenance therapy. They usually work best when the medicine is regularly present in someone’s body to consistently treat COPD symptoms.5

Common inhalers used to treat COPD

Below are some common maintenance/controller and rescue inhalers.

Remember, only your health care provider or a pulmonologist can prescribe these medications. You should not use any type of inhaler or medicine without first consulting your doctor.

Use the videos below to learn more about inhalers

The different styles of inhalers

Besides the rescue and controller designation, inhalers come in a variety of styles, which can work differently. These videos describe some of the most common types:

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  1. “COPD,” Mayo Clinic, last accessed December 20, 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20353685.
  2. “COPD Treatments,” The COPD Foundation, last accessed December 20, 2021, https://www.copdfoundation.org/Learn-More/I-am-a-Person-with-COPD/Treatments-Medications.aspx.
  3. “Bronchodilators,” COPD.net, last accessed December 22, 2021, https://copd.net/treatment/medication-overview/bronchodilators.
  4. “Bronchodilators.”
  5. “Bronchodilators.”