My Take on the Long-Term Side Effects of Inhalers

I have a hypothesis about the long-term side effects of taking albuterol inhalers. I'm not going to use science here. I'm simply going to use my own history as proof.

Let's flashback to the past

So, I’m fifteen-years-old. It’s 1985. I’m what doctors call a "high-risk" asthmatic. I’m puffing on inhalers an awful lot! For instance, I’m a first-generation albuterol puffer. I'm also a first-generation inhaled corticosteroid (ICS) puffer.

Worse, I use albuterol a lot more than what the package insert recommends. I often go through more than one albuterol inhaler in a month. My dose of ICS is high, too. The one I'm prescribed is Azmacort. My prescription is for 4 puffs 4 times a day. Like, that's a lot of puffs. In fact, I puff so much I'm an inaugural member of the Ventolin Club.

I'm a worrier. Maybe it's because I'm a natural thinker. Maybe it's because I'm a nervous kid. Maybe I'm nervous because of all the medicine I take. For instance, albuterol is similar to adrenaline. It can cause a person to become jittery and nervous.1

So, I often think things like: “What are the long-term effects of all this puffing?”

Long-term side effects of using an albuterol inhaler

Sure, they do studies on this new medicine to learn that it's safe before the FDA approves it. They learn that it works for asthma. But, do they take into consideration what years of inhaling inhaled medicine does to a person? I mean, will it somehow damage airway cells in a way that might cause something worse than asthma? I mean, something like cancer? How do they know it doesn't do this?

So, I'm sitting on the doctor's bed. I nervously shift as the door opens and Dr. O enters my room. My shoulders are high. I’m somewhat frogged up on the edge of the bed. I’m having an asthma attack. It’s a mild one, but an asthma attack indeed.

And here I am worrying about my future.

Asking my doctor about side effects

I pose my question to Dr. O. "Um, are there long-term side effects to using my albuterol inhaler so much?"

He smiles, sits down on his black, leather doctor's chair, and leans back until his back hits the wall. He puckers his lips, as though searching for the perfect way of articulating an answer. He says, “You know, you have high-risk asthma. If you don’t take these medicines every day, you won’t have a future.”

There is a moment of silence. Then he continues, “But, these medicines are run through the wringer. They are studied and have been tested up the ying-yang. Side effects are considered negligible.”

There was another pause, then he added: "And they keep you alive now. So, I wouldn't worry about the future."

It was a good answer, I think. But, still, I’m not satisfied. Sure, side effects are negligible. But, they can’t go into the future. They can’t see me in the future. How will years of inhaling albuterol affect me? Will it cause cancer long-term?

Now jump into the future

Ah, so what about those long-term side effects of using my albuterol inhaler? How did all that puffing affect me?

Well, I'm still here. I'm breathing fine. In fact, I'm still puffing. But, thankfully, the inhalers today are a heck of a lot stronger. I only need to take mine twice a day and it prevents asthma symptoms. In fact, they are so good that sometimes I don't even feel like I have asthma anymore.

But, I'm still alive. I do not have inhaler-induced cancer. I do not have any sort of long-term effect of all that puffing. I'm fine.

And, now that I think of it, inhalers have been around since 1956.2 One would think, if there were long-term consequences of puffing, they would be well known by now. And, let it be known, that there are no long-term consequences of puffing. I think, if anything, I am living proof of that.

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