Rescue medications are medicines that provide quick relief from acute symptoms of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Rescue medications are designed to be taken when you are having an asthma attack or wheezing, coughing, or otherwise having trouble breathing. Most often, they are inhaled using an inhaler, but they may also be administered using a nebulizer.
Rescue medications are a type of medication called bronchodilators. This means they work by causing the airways (bronchioles) in the lungs to open, making it easier to breathe. The effects of rescue medications do not last for very long. Most are effective for between four and six hours.
Rescue medications are usually short-acting beta-agonists (SABAs). Beta-agonists activate receptors called beta-2 receptors on the muscles surrounding the airways in the lungs. Activation of the beta-2 receptors causes the muscles surrounding the lungs to relax, which causes the airways to open. Beta-agonists begin working within a few minutes of administration, and their effects last for approximately four hours. SABAs may be taken before exercising to help prevent asthma symptoms caused by exercise.
SABAs may cause side effects, including anxiety, restlessness, tremors in your hands or other parts of your body, headache, or fast and irregular heartbeat. If your heartbeat becomes fast and irregular, call your doctor right away.
If you are using rescue medications more than twice per week, tell your doctor. This may be a sign that your asthma or COPD is not under control. Your doctor may decide to prescribe you daily medication for your asthma or COPD, or may change the type or dosage of daily medications if you already take them. Rescue medications should not be used to provide long-term control of asthma or COPD symptoms.