Asthma is a common condition in the UK, affecting one in eleven children and one in twelve adults (data from Asthma UK), and can often last for a life-time. However with the right medication symptoms can usually be kept under control so that sufferers can lead a normal life.
If you or your children have been prescribed one or two inhalers, make sure you know the difference between them so they are being used to manage symptoms appropriately.
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How inhalers work
Asthma is a chronic condition for which there is no cure; but it can usually be effectively managed.
Asthmatic symptoms – coughing, wheezing and breathlessness – are caused by an inflammation of the airways with severity varying from person to person. An incredibly wide range of factors (triggers) can cause irritation in asthma sufferers; resulting in the narrowing of airways, the tightening of surrounding muscles and an increase in mucus production. All of which make it difficult to breathe.
Inhalers are used to deliver low doses of medication into the airways both to relieve symptoms and prevent further attacks. Your doctor or asthma nurse should have explained how to use any prescribed inhalers. If you’ve been diagnosed as asthmatic you will have been prescribed a blue inhaler and possibly also a brown inhaler. They are different colours to differentiate between their differing functions.
The blue inhaler
The blue inhaler is also known as the reliever inhaler and is for immediate rescue when you are experiencing symptoms, such as chest tightness or shortness of breath.
It contains a short acting bronchodilator known as salbutamol; which quickly opens the airways during an asthma attack. The drug acts to relax the muscles around the airways, allowing them to open up and make it easier to breathe for instant relief of symptoms.
Everyone with asthma should have a blue inhaler as it’s needed to treat asthma attacks. Ensure it is kept with you at all times and is easily accessible, particularly if you are prone to attacks.
If you are using a blue inhaler at least three times a week, your asthma may not be well controlled and you may need a brown inhaler. Contact your GP or asthma nurse for advice.
If you’ve been prescribed a blue inhaler you may be able to obtain repeat inhalers through Dr Fox. For more information click here.
The brown inhaler
The brown inhaler is used to help manage symptoms and help prevent further attacks. In contrast to the blue inhaler, this is NOT a rescue medicine.
There are also beige, red, purple, green and other colours of inhalers, some of which contain reliever or preventer medicines, either in combination or as single preparation. If not sure what an inhaler is for, or whether it is being used correctly, consult a doctor or specialist nurse.
Brown inhalers contain a low dose of steroids that help reduce the sensitivity of airways; and used regularly should decrease the likelihood of attacks by building up resistance to triggers. The effects of the medication develop gradually over time and so brown inhalers need to be used twice a day, usually in the morning and evening, even when you are feeling fine.
Symptoms should slowly decrease but can take up to two weeks to work, therefore it’s important to keep taking your brown inhaler even if you don’t see improvement in the first couple of days.
Not everyone with asthma will be prescribed a brown inhaler. Usually you will if your asthma needs to be controlled – as in you have symptoms during everyday activities – or need to use your blue inhaler, at least three times a week. Also if your sleep is frequently disturbed by symptoms or attacks are triggered by chest infections or smoky atmospheres.
The initial level of medication in your brown inhaler will be decided by your GP or asthma nurse to control your symptoms. This may need to be increased if your asthma isn’t being appropriately managed but ultimately the level will be reduced to the lowest possible dose.
The important difference
The key message is that the blue inhaler is used for immediate relief, while the brown inhaler is used to reduce symptoms and prevent further attacks. Remember when symptoms present themselves or in the event of an asthma attack to use the blue inhaler.
If you have any worries or concerns about your asthma treatment, don’t hesitate to contact your GP or asthma nurse for support.