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Inhalers vs. Biologics: How They Help Treat Asthma

Proper usage can help you achieve better asthma control.

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Early on after your asthma diagnosis, your doctor will likely show you how to use an inhaler. Using an inhaler helps deliver medication directly to the airways, so they can be an effective way to manage your asthma. That said, you have to know how to use asthma inhalers correctly to get the most of them.

Understanding Your Asthma Inhalers

For starters, you need to know the difference between the main categories of inhaled bronchodilators:

  • Long-acting bronchodilators: These are also known as "control inhalers" or "maintenance inhalers." This is the inhaler you may use regularly or daily. It basically helps prevent asthma attacks from happening.
  • Short-acting bronchodilators: These are also known as "rescue inhalers." You only use them when you are having an asthma attack, or a sudden worsening of symptoms. They provide quick relief.

“Both [types] work to relax the airway, smooth muscle, and allow a patient to breathe more easily,” says Ekta Perera, MD, allergist-immunologist in New York City.

How to Use Asthma Inhalers

Your doctor will give you the exact instructions for how to use asthma inhalers. In general, patients use long-acting inhalers twice daily. This will depend on the exact asthma medicine you are taking. It is important to follow your doctor’s instructions for when and how often to use this inhaler. This is true even if you're feeling well. Learn more about the importance of sticking to your asthma medicines here.

On the other hand, you will use your rescue inhaler only when you need it. You can use it up to every four hours if you are having difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest tightness, or cough.

Finally, you should be familiar with how to handle your inhaler and deliver the medicines. Learn more about how to use an inhaler (with or without a spacer) here.

What About Biologics for Asthma?

Biologics are a newer option for treating asthma. In particular, biologics may be beneficial for people who have not found relief from using classic asthma treatments like bronchodilators.

“Biologics target specific molecules involved in airway inflammation that contribute to asthma symptoms,” says Dr. Perera. In other words, they try to treat the underlying problem by disrupting the inflammatory process. This differs from inhalers, which “directly deliver medication to the airways in order to improve asthma control.”

Unlike long-acting and short-acting bronchodilators, biologics are not an inhaled medication. You get them from injections or infusions. You’ll need to visit the office periodically to receive the biologic, depending on your needs and the exact biologic you are taking. This may be as often as every two weeks, or possibly up to every eight weeks.

Unclear about treating your asthma? “If a patient is confused about their treatment regimen or how to use their medications, they should contact their doctor who can review specific instructions and go over proper use with them,” says Dr. Perera.