As a caregiver, you may not ever think about breathing. You just do it. However, the person in your care may actually have to think about breathing and dedicate energy to filling their lungs with oxygen. They may also rely on various inhaled medications to help decrease the amount of energy and work it takes just to breathe. There are many medications that can be used to treat breathing difficulties. This article will focus on inhaled medications a.k.a. “puffers” or “inhalers.”
It is important that you are able to assist the person in your care with the use of their inhaler(s).
What is dyspnea?
Medical professionals use the term dyspnea (pronounced disp-nee-a) to describe shortness of breath. You may have heard a health care professional use this term when describing the symptoms of the person in your care. There are several conditions that can lead to dyspnea. Asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), heart disease, various cancers, and obesity are just a few examples.
How do inhalers work?
These medications work just as you would expect – they are inhaled into the lungs where the medication has its effect.
The person in your care will be instructed by a health care professional on how to properly use their inhaled medications. It is a good idea for you as a caregiver to become confident in administering these medications as well. You should consider participating in demonstrations with a health care professional to make sure that you understand the process.
The person in your care may be prescribed a long-acting inhaler, a short-acting inhaler, or both. Not all inhaled medications are administered in the same way. It is important that you are able to assist the person in your care with the use of their inhalers. This is especially true in an emergency.
For videos on the use of inhaled medications please visit The Asthma Society of Canada’s web page on How to Use Inhalers.
What is a short-acting inhaler?
Short-acting inhaled medication is sometimes called a “rescue inhaler.” Short-acting inhalers are used for immediate treatment of a person who is having difficulty breathing. They work to open the person’s airways. The Asthma Society of Canada refers to this type of medication as a "reliever."
It may be helpful to keep short-acting inhaled medication in a designated spot in the home so that it can always be easily accessed in an emergency.
Ideally, the person in your care should have their inhalers with them at all times. This is especially true when they are not at home or in your care.
If the person in your care experiences an unexpected decline in their ability to breathe or they do not get relief with the use of their inhaler(s) - call 9-1-1 immediately.
What is a long-acting inhaler?
Long-acting inhaled medication is not helpful in emergency situations. The inhaled treatment is delayed in this type of medication. The long-acting inhaler is used routinely and works “behind the scenes” to manage inflammation. It is important for the person in your care to use their long-acting inhaler as prescribed (never missing a dose) in order to maintain their ability to breathe. The Asthma Society of Canada refers to this type of medication as a "controller."
The person you are caring for may be prescribed both short-acting and long-acting inhaled medications. Make sure that each inhaler is labeled appropriately so that the correct medication is used in an emergency. As with all medications, it is important to check the expiry date on inhalers. Prescriptions should be re-filled at the pharmacy on a regular basis so that the person in your care is never without their inhaler(s) as this can result in a life-threatening situation.
What is a spacer?
Some people will use an accessory called a spacer with their inhaled medications. A spacer is a hollow cylinder that attaches to the inhaler. It creates a “space” for the medication to collect until it is inhaled. The spacer can make for more effective and efficient use of the inhaler. The person will use either the mouthpiece or a mask to breathe in the medication from the spacer. Remember that spacers must be cleaned regularly. Refer to the directions that are packaged with the spacer or ask a health care professional for specific instructions on how to properly clean the spacer.
Not all inhalers can be used with a spacer. You should consult with a health care professional to find out if a spacer is appropriate for the type of inhaler that is being used. The Asthma Society of Canada recommends that spacers be used with all inhalers containing corticosteroids.
Please visit the Asthma Society of Canada’s asthma treatment page to learn more about the use of a spacer.
Seeking guidance from a health care professional
As a caregiver, it is important to ensure that the person in your care attends all medical appointments.
Testing of lung function is ongoing as some illnesses will progress resulting in more severe symptoms. It is important for the person’s condition to be monitored regularly and for treatments to be altered or changed by health care professionals as needed.
Please note that this article is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice. All medications, including inhaled medications, should be taken as prescribed.
Elizz recommends that you always consult with a health care professional if you have any questions or concerns about any type of medication. For more information about managing medications, check out our article on Getting Health and Medical Information Organized.
At Elizz, we provide caregiver support for you and home care services for those who depend on you. Elizz is a Canadian company powered by Saint Elizabeth, a national not-for-profit health care organization that has been caring for Canadians since 1908.
If you would like more information about Elizz and any of our care services, please call us at 1-855-Ask-Eliz (275-3549).