What is a puffer or inhaler?

As a caregiver, you may not ever think about breathing. You just do it. However, the person you are caring for may rely on medication(s) to help them breathe. There are many medications that can be used to treat breathing difficulties. This article will focus on inhaled medications a.k.a. “puffers” or “inhalers.”

How do inhalers work?

These medications work just as you would expect – they are inhaled into the lungs where the medication has its effect.

A health care professional will provide instructions on how to properly use their inhaled medications. It is a good idea for you, as a caregiver, to participate in demonstrations with a health care professional to make sure that you understand the process.

What is a short-acting inhaler?

Short-acting inhaled medication is sometimes called a “rescue inhaler.” Short-acting inhalers are used for immediate treatment of a person who is having difficulty breathing. They work to open the person’s airways. Asthma Canada refers to this type of medication as a Reliever.

It may be helpful to keep short-acting inhaled medication in a designated spot in the home so that it can always be easily accessed in an emergency.

Ideally, the person in your care should have their short-acting inhaler with them at all times. This is especially true when they are not at home or in your care.

If the person you are caring for experiences difficulty breathing or they do not get relief with the use of their prescribed inhaler – call 9-1-1 immediately.

What is a long-acting inhaler?

Long-acting inhaled medication is not helpful in emergency situations. The inhaled treatment is delayed in this type of medication. The long-acting inhaler is used routinely and works “behind the scenes” to manage inflammation. It is important for the person in your care to use their long-acting inhaler as prescribed (never missing a dose) in order to maintain their ability to breathe. Asthma Canada refers to this type of medication as a Controller.

The person you are caring for may be prescribed both short-acting and long-acting inhaled medications. Make sure that each inhaler is labeled appropriately so that the correct medication is used in an emergency. As with all medications, it is important to check the expiry date on inhalers. Prescriptions should be re-filled at the pharmacy on a regular basis so that the person in your care is never without their inhaler(s) as this can result in a life-threatening situation.

What is a spacer?

Some people will use an accessory called a spacer with their inhaled medications. A spacer is a hollow cylinder that attaches to the inhaler. It creates a “space” for the medication to collect until it is inhaled. The spacer can make for more effective and efficient use of the inhaler.  The person will use either the mouthpiece or a mask to breathe in the medication from the spacer. Remember that spacers must be cleaned regularly. Refer to the directions that are packaged with the spacer or ask a health care professional for specific instructions on how to properly clean the spacer.

Not all inhalers can be used with a spacer. You should consult with a health care professional to find out if a spacer is appropriate for the type of inhaler that is being used. Asthma Canada recommends that spacers be used with all inhalers containing corticosteroids.

Visit Asthma Canada’s Spacers webpage to learn more about the use of a spacer.  

Seeking guidance from a health care professional

As a caregiver, it is important to ensure that the person you are caring for attends all medical appointments.

Testing of lung function is ongoing as some illnesses will progress resulting in more severe symptoms. It is important for the person’s condition to be monitored regularly and for treatments to be altered or changed by health care professionals as needed.

Please note that this article is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice. All medications, including inhaled medications, should be taken as prescribed.



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