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Bronchodilators are medications that relax the bronchial muscles. When those muscles are relaxed, the airways of the lungs get widened, making breathing much easier. Delivery of this medicine by inhalation (with the help of nebulizers, meter dose inhalers or dry powder inhalers) is the most effective form of drug administration for patients with asthma and other types of lung complications.

When are bronchodilators needed?

Bronchodilators are prescribed by doctors as a treatment option for the following respiratory complications:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Bronchiectasis – a lung condition where the airways are abnormally widened

What are the categories of bronchodilators?

Bronchodilators are broadly classified into 2 categories. They are:

Short acting bronchodilators

They are also known as quick acting or rescue medications. They are used for instant relief from acute symptoms of asthma attack and shortness of breath, etc. Short acting medicines begin to show impact within minutes after consumption and their effects last for 2-4 hours. They can also be used by an asthma patient before exercising.  

Long acting bronchodilators

As the name suggests they are prescribed to improve respiratory complications on long term basis. They may be conjugated with steroids. Your doctor will prescribe a course that will help you to gain better control over asthma, COPD and other lung symptoms.

What are the most widely used bronchodilators?

Beta 2 agonists

They are available in multiple forms- pills, inhaler, nebulizer, syrups, etc. and are of short acting and long acting types. The short acting beta agonists (SABA) can be used to prevent exercise induced asthma and to get momentary relief from COPD. However, they should be taken more than twice a week for shortness of breath. The long acting beta agonists (LABA) are taken on daily basis in combination with steroids enhance easy breathing. Examples of SABA are Albutero and levalbuterol while LABA are formoterol, salmeterol, etc.


Anticholinergics block the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain. They relax and dilate the airways in the lungs, making breathing easier. They also protect airways from sudden bronchospasm and are capable of reducing mucus from airways. Both short acting and long acting variants are mostly used for COPD and less commonly for asthma. They are used in nebulizer solutions and as inhalers. Some examples are ipratropium and tiotropium


Like other two bronchodilators, theophyllines are also of short- and long-acting types. Short-acting theophylline drugs last 6-12 hours while long-acting theophylline drugs last 24 hours. They improve the activity of the bronchial muscles and can also decrease swelling in your lungs. Examples of short-acting theophylline drugs are theodur, theofylline, theochron etc. and long-acting are theo-24 and uniphyl.

Are there any side effects of bronchodilators?

Side effects of bronchodilators depend on the type of medicine you are taking. People often experience the following symptoms:

  • Nervousness, restlessness, shakiness
  • Headaches, nausea
  • Coughing
  • Blurry vision
  • Sleeping problems
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Muscle pain

When bronchodilators are not prescribed?

Your doctor will analyze your medical history before prescribing you a bronchodilator. The following health issues are taken into consideration:

Beta 2 agonists are either not used or used with extreme caution in people with hyperthyroidism, heart disease and diabetes. The same applies to theophyllines.

Theophyllines are not prescribed to people with liver disease while anticholinergics are denied to people with prostate cancer, prostate hyperplasia and glaucoma

You must tell your doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding because asthma and COPD and other respiratory complication need to be checked while assuring safety of health, at the same time

Do bronchodilators interfere with other medicines?

You have to also present the history of your prescription and non prescription drugs because bronchodilators interfere with certain medicines like beta blockers, diuretics, antidepressants, medicines for treating Alzheimer’s disease, etc.

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Written by: Saptakee sengupta
Date last updated: January 27, 2015