Albuterol and SABAs: How They Treat Acute Asthma Symptoms

Albuterol and Other SABAs Provide Rapid Symptom Relief

SABA rescue inhaler
Albuterol Inhaler. Photo: © ADAM

What Are SABAs?

SABAs are a type of bronchodilator used for the acute relief of asthma symptoms. SABA stands for short acting beta agonist, the most common one being albuterol (a list of other SABAs is included below). They help with symptoms such as:

Taken 30 minutes before the onset of exercise, albuterol, and other SABAs can prevent symptoms of exercise-induced asthma.

Albuterol and other SABAs are not controller medications and should not be used as a regular treatment for your asthma. Increased use of albuterol and other SABA inhalers may also mean you need to do a better job at avoiding your asthma triggers. Your goal for asthma should be to use only one rescue inhaler in a year. If you are frequently having to refill your rescue inhaler, you may have poor asthma control.

Many times the symptoms are due to cool or dry air that you inhale through your mouth. Air coming in through the nose is generally warmer and moister. Other triggers can lead to symptoms including pollen, air pollution or smoke.

How Do Albuterol and Other SABAs Work?

Albuterol and other SABAs improve your asthma symptoms by increasing airflow through your lungs. In this bronchodilator article, you can see how bronchodilators like albuterol work. As SABAs like albuterol relax the smooth muscle lining the airways of the lung and your airways open up.

SABAs can be used for other conditions such as exercise-induced asthma as mentioned above. In this condition, the most common symptom is coughing, but any of the above-mentioned symptoms can occur. Surprisingly, the symptoms do not tend to occur when you begin the exercise, but generally, begin after 10-15 minutes and may persist until you have stopped exercising.

Some patients continue to have symptoms for 24 hours or more.

Side Effects of Albuterol and Other SABAs

Many patients do not experience any side effects using albuterol and other SABAs. Side effects, for the most part, are considered mild, meaning you can monitor them and discuss with your doctor if they do not resolve. If you experience some of the minor side effects, some physicians may change you to a different SABA.

Common side effects with SABAs include fast heart rate, anxiety, tremor, restlessness, and headache. Patients may also experience elevated blood sugar levels and low levels of potassium with over use.

Does Albuterol Come In A Liquid My Child Can Take By Mouth?

While albuterol does come in an orally ingestible form, side effects such as fast hear rate, nervousness and anxiety, tremor, and behavioral problems all appear to be more significant. Additionally, the inhaled versions of the drug work in your body much more quickly when they are inhaled. As a result, most clinicians prefer to administer albuterol though some sort of inhaled treatment rather than orally.

Am I Using Too Much Albuterol?

Using your albuterol or SABA more than twice per week indicates your asthma is under poor control. If you are using your albuterol or other SABA more than twice per week you may need to increase your other controller medications like an inhaled steroid or make sure that one of these conditions is not making your asthma worse.

Overuse results in a situation where your symptoms may be more difficult to control. Your body may in effect become tolerant and less sensitive to the medication. You may end up requiring larger and larger doses of medication to achieve the same relief effect. As you increase the dose you will also increase your risk of potential side effects.

Examples of Albuterol and other SABAs

  • Proventil HFA
  • Ventolin HFA
  • Proair HFA
  • Xopenex HFA
  • Alupent

If you do not see your medication listed here, look for it in our drug finder.

Other SABA Questions

Should my child be allowed to use an asthma inhaler at school?

Check out this checklist for asthma at school.

The Bottom Line

Albuterol and other SABAs are primarily used for the treatment of acute asthma symptoms or the prevention of exercise-induced asthma. These medications work by relaxing the muscles in your lung and allowing air to move through the lung more easily. It is very important that you re examine your asthma action plan and discuss other therapies if you are overusing your SABA rescue inhaler.


National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Accessed: September 6, 2016. Expert Panel Report 3 (EPR3): Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma

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