Quick-relief medicines for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) work quickly to help you breathe better. You take them when you are coughing, wheezing, or having trouble breathing, such as during a flare-up.
These medicines are also called rescue drugs. Since they relax the muscles of your airways (bronchi) and open them up for easier breathing, they are also known as bronchodilators (meaning medicines that open the airways).
You and your doctor can make a plan for the quick-relief drugs that work for you. This plan will include when you should take your medicine and how much you should take.
Make sure you get your medicine refilled before you run out.
Quick-relief beta-agonist inhalers
Quick-relief beta-agonists help you breathe better by relaxing the muscles of your airways. They are short-acting, which means they stay in your system only for a short time.
Some people take them just before exercising. Ask your doctor if you should do this.
If you need to use these drugs more than 3 times a week, or if you use more than one canister a month, your COPD probably is not under control. You should call your doctor.
Fast or irregular heartbeats. Call your doctor right away if you have this side effect.
Oral steroids (also called corticosteroids) are medicines you take by mouth, as pills, capsules, or liquids. They are not quick-relief medicines, but are often given for 7 to 14 days when your symptoms flare-up. Sometimes you might have to take them for longer.
Oral steroids include:
Anderson B, Conner Anderson B, Conner K, Dunn C, et al. Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement. Diagnosis and Management of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). https://www.icsi.org/_asset/yw83gh/COPD.pdf. Accessed May 5, 2014.
Balkissoon R, Lommatzsch S, Carolan B, Make B. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a concise review. Med Clin N Am. 2011;95:1125-1141.
Evensen AE. Management of COPD exacrbations. Am Fam Physician. 2010;81:607-613.
Shapiro SD, Reilly JJ Jr, Rennard SI. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema. In: Mason RJ, Broaddus VC, Martin TR, et al. Murray & Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2010:chap 39.
Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.