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SABAs (Short-Acting Beta Agonists) for Asthma

Last updated: February 2024

If you have asthma, it is likely that you use a rescue inhaler. Rescue inhalers contain a drug from a group called SABAs. SABA stands for short-acting beta agonist. SABAs are used to treat asthma symptoms quickly.1

How do SABAs work?

SABAs are also called bronchodilators. Their job is to relax the airways. SABAs target and activate a receptor called the beta-2 receptor in the airways. This helps relax the muscles in the airways to improve breathing.1

Recommendation to not take SABAs alone

Every year, GINA (Global Initiative for Asthma) provides updates about best practices for managing asthma. In 2022, it was recommended that SABAs alone should not be used to treat asthma. SABAs can only provide quick relief from the symptoms of asthma. They do not treat the underlying cause of asthma.2,3

Using SABAs by themselves can make symptoms worse over time. It can also lead to resistance to SABAs. A person with SABA resistance will need to use their inhaler more often. The additional medicine can increase bad side effects.2,3

Instead of taking SABAs alone, adults and most children with asthma should also take inhaled corticosteroids (ICS). ICSs should make it less likely for asthma symptoms to get worse over time. SABAs can still be used to provide immediate relief. But they should always be paired with an ICS.2,3

Examples

Based on the latest research, GINA recommends ICS-formoterol as the best treatment for everyone with asthma. This treatment combines ICS with another form of bronchodilator. Together, they should:2,3

  • Quickly relieve asthma symptoms
  • Make it less likely for symptoms to get worse over time

Airsupra® is an example of a rescue inhaler which contains both SABAs and ICSs.4

SABAs are usually given in the form of an inhaler or an inhalation solution used in the nebulizer machine. Examples of SABA-only medicines include:1,4

  • AccuNeb®
  • ProAir® Digihaler, HFA, and RespiClick
  • Proventil® HFA
  • Ventolin® HFA
  • Xopenex® HFA

What are the possible side effects?

Side effects can vary depending on the specific drug you are taking.The most common side effects of SABAs include:1,5

  • Trembling, dizziness, or nervousness
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle cramps
  • Chest pain
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate

More severe side effects include:1,5

  • Sudden narrowing of the airways (sometimes called "paradoxical bronchospasm")
  • Low potassium levels
  • Allergic reaction

Use your SABA as your doctor prescribes. If you find that you need to use your SABA inhaler more often than prescribed, talk to your doctor. You may need additional medicine to help control your asthma. Overuse of SABA can cause bad side effects. It can even lead to death.4,5

These are not all the possible side effects of SABAs. Talk to your doctor about what to expect when taking SABAs. You also should call your doctor if you have any changes that concern you when taking SABAs.

Other things to know

Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you need help using your SABA. They can show you how to prime, use, and clean your inhaler. This will allow you to get the maximum benefits from your inhaler.1

Ask your doctor if taking a SABA is safe with any medical conditions you have. SABAs should be used with caution in people with:5

  • A convulsive disorder
  • Overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes

SABAs may interact with certain medicines. Before beginning treatment for asthma, tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you are taking including over-the-counter drugs. Also keep an eye out for an allergic reaction to the SABA treatment.5

If you are using a SABA inhaler, it should be paired with an ICS treatment to stop the symptoms from getting worse. Talk your doctor about the best options for you.2,3

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