Reliever inhalers bring short-term relief from asthma by relaxing the bands of muscles around your airways that tighten during an asthma flare-up (attack). When these muscles relax, air can flow in and out of your lungs more freely.

Relievers are taken as needed to relieve asthma symptoms (cough, wheeze, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath), before exercise, or during an asthma flare-up (attack). They work quickly, with the effects felt within five minutes.

There are different types of reliever inhalers.

1. Single ingredient reliever inhaler:

Common reliever inhalers include Ventolin®, Respigen®* and SalAir®. All three of these inhalers contain the same medicine, salbutamol, and give the same dose. There is also another reliever called Bricanyl®. This contains a medicine called terbutaline which works in a similar way to salbutamol.

These reliever inhalers do not deal with the underlying cause of asthma, which is inflammation inside your airways. For this reason, these reliever inhalers must be used alongside a separate preventer inhaler to treat the inflammation.

This is different for children under 12 years old. Read more.

If you are 12 years or over, single ingredient reliever inhalers should not be used as your only treatment for asthma.

If your asthma is well-controlled, you should only be using a maximum of three cannisters of this type of reliever inhaler in a year (this equates to more than one dose of a reliever inhaler daily). Using more than three of these reliever inhalers in a year is associated with increased risk of flare-ups (attacks), emergency department visits and hospitalisation. If you are using more than this, talk to your healthcare practitioner.

2. Two-in-one combination reliever inhaler:

2-in-1 combination reliever inhalers include the brands Symbicort® and DuoResp Spiromax®. These contain a preventer medicine (budesonide) and a fast-acting reliever medicine (formoterol). This provides immediate relief of asthma symptoms by opening up the airways, as well as reducing the risk of an asthma flare-up (attack).

The 2-in-1 combination budesonide/formoterol inhaler cannot be used as a reliever together with another separate regularly scheduled maintenance 2-in-1 combination treatment such as Seretide® or Breo Ellipta®.

Recommended reliever inhaler for people 12 years and older

The recommended reliever inhaler for adults and adolescents 12 years and over, is the 2-in-1 combination inhaler containing the preventer budesonide and the fast-acting reliever formoterol (Symbicort® or DuoResp Spiromax®).

For people with mild asthma, this inhaler can be used on its own as a reliever and only taken as needed for asthma symptoms; for people with moderate or severe asthma, this inhaler can be used both as a regularly scheduled maintenance treatment and as a reliever as needed for asthma symptoms. Each time you use this inhaler you get the immediate relief from the reliever medicine, plus a dose of the preventer medicine which reduces the risk of an asthma flare-up. When used as a reliever treatment, it is sometimes called ‘Anti-inflammatory Reliever’ (AIR) therapy by healthcare practitioners. You do not need a separate preventer inhaler if you are using this treatment.

Side effects of reliever inhalers

There can be side effects from using reliever inhalers, including fine tremors (particularly in the hands), nervous tension, headaches, muscle cramps, and a racing heart. If you have a fast or irregular heartbeat, or chest pain, talk to your healthcare practitioner immediately.

*Note: The Respigen brand of salbutamol inhaler has been discontinued, due to the factory making Respigen inhalers being closed down (Pharmac notification, 11 October 2023). There may still be some stock in the supply chain, hence its inclusion in the information above.