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“Just Use This Inhaler If It’s an Emergency”

I recently had someone tell me that they asked their doctor to prescribe an Albuterol inhaler. When the doctor did, he told them to only use it if it was “an emergency”.

I wanted to do a facepalm.

Then this person coughed and coughed the entire time I was talking to them. I asked if they wanted to use their inhaler, and that I would wait. They said that they just needed a drink of water.

Let’s talk about when to use Albuterol inhalers

I thought this was basic information, but some people are missing the boat. Albuterol is :

“Albuterol is used to prevent and treat difficulty breathing, wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing, and chest tightness caused by lung diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD; a group of diseases that affect the lungs and airways).”

Most doctors are moving away from the term “emergency inhaler” and are instead calling Albuterol inhalers “rescue inhalers” or “reliever inhalers.” Some people think that an emergency means they have to be gasping for air before they can use their inhaler.

Using your reliever inhaler at the first sign of trouble can help prevent you from getting to that point in the first place! And it will do just that – relieve your symptoms.

It’s important to know what YOUR asthma symptoms are, because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to asthma. As an example: I don’t wheeze. Never have, never will. Neither does Middle Son.

However, I can hear Daughter wheezing from another room. Seriously.

Ensuring you have an asthma action plan

You need to know when YOU need to use your Albuterol inhaler. And that means having an Asthma Action Plan (AAP.)  American Lung Association has one you can print off and take to your doctor.

They are handy because you will have green, yellow and red zones. Green means “Doing Well”, Yellow means “Caution” and Red means “Get Help Now!” In the Yellow Zone, it will list some possible symptoms:


Some problems breathing

Cough, wheeze, or chest tight 

Problems working or playing 

Wake at night

Peak Flow Meter________ to ________ (between 50% and 79% of personal best)” 

Notice it doesn’t say “gasping for air?!” These symptoms can be subtle and hard to pick up. In fact, asthma is often called a “silent” disease because people can’t tell that your chest is tight, or that your throat is twitchy, or that you are short of breath.

The next line on the AAP says:

“Quick-reliefMedicine(s)      Albuterol/levalbuterol _____ puffs, every 4 hours as needed”

Since I’m not a doctor, I can’t tell you how many puffs of your inhaler to use. This is for your doctor to fill in! But that can be different for everyone. It also says:

“You should feel better within 20–60 minutes of the quick-relief treatment. If you are getting worse or are in the Yellow Zone for more than 24 hours, THEN follow the instructions in the RED ZONE and call the doctor right away!”

See? It’s all spelled out for you!

Remember – it doesn’t have to be “an emergency” for you to use your Albuterol inhaler. Look at the symptoms in the yellow zone (above) from the American Lung Association.  Don’t wait for it to get worse or “go away”.

I’m surprised that people are still hesitant to use their inhaler. Know your body – know when YOU need to use it. And then notice how you feel afterward. Is it easier to breathe? Do you feel like that is the right amount of puffs for your body? Talk to your doctor and make a plan!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • cathie
    6 months ago

    I am terrible about using my inhaler unless the synptoms are severe or quite uncomfortable. The only time I will use it without being severe is when I get a “quick” reaction to something that I know will blow up to a severe attack. My niece, who is an internist/pediatrician keeps trying to get me to take my meds regularly but I am so used to the cough and occasional congestion I don’t ever treat it. This habit stemmed from decades of not having insurance and not being able to afford the medication. Now that I am insured it is hard to break the habit.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    6 months ago

    Hi cathie and thanks for this post as well. It’s understandable how my managed your medication whe you lacked insurance and finances were a challenge. Now, that you are insured, you may want to look into being more compliant with your medication regimen. Sometimes that is exactly what keeps one’s condition from flaring up and makes it easier to maintain control. What do you think? Leon (site moderator)

  • TracyLee
    6 months ago

    When I got my first albuterol inhaler I was guilty of this. Coworkers would often comment about my nonstop coughing but I refused to use it because I wasn’t “desperate”. I’m smarter now.

  • Andrea M Jensen, CHES (R), AE-C author
    5 months ago

    I have heard this from a colleague too. She said, “I just have this ‘asthma cough’. I told her that’s what the doctor means when he says to take your Albuterol “as needed”. I take mine even if I start a little twitch in my throat (because it will then progress to a nasty cough.)

    I’m so glad you aren’t waiting until you are “desperate”!

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    6 months ago

    Hi Shellzoo and thanks for your post in response to Dia’s excellent article. Besides that article I thought you might find it helpful to look over this one on the very same topic: Wishing you well, Leon (site moderator)

  • Shellzoo
    6 months ago

    I admit that I used to think I had to be wheezing and short of breath to need my rescue inhaler. I. Have since discovered that while I occasionally will have wheezes, my symptoms usually are a tight chest and coughing. Sometimes an itch that feels like it spreads through my airway. I am getting better at using my rescue inhaler at the start of symptoms but still seem to second guess if it is just in my head. I really feel just like diabetes get education, asthmatics should get education when diagnosed and as needed too. Being handed an inhaler and told to use it for wheezing is not enough teaching.

  • John Bottrell, RRT moderator
    6 months ago

    Agreed. Well said. Good education is important (for both patient and doctor). And learning when and how to use an inhaler to “prevent” a flare-up takes time. John. Site Moderator.

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