Asthma Management Handbook

Guide to reliever medicines

Overview

Relievers are bronchodilator medicines used for rapid resolution of bronchoconstriction. They can also be used pre-emptively to prevent exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.

Every patient with asthma (or their carers) should:

  • carry a reliever medicine at all times
  • replace it whenever it reaches the expiry date.

Relievers contain rapid-onset beta2 receptor agonists, which include:

  • short-acting beta2 agonists (salbutamol and terbutaline)
  • the combination of an inhaled corticosteroid (budesonide) and long-acting beta2 agonist (formoterol) in a single inhaler. This option only applies to patients using combination budesonide/formoterol in a maintenance-and-reliever regimen.

Table. Classification of asthma medicines Opens in a new window Please view and print this figure separately: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/table/show/79

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Short-acting beta-2 agonist relievers for children: 1–5 years

Infants under 12 months

In infants under 12 months, bronchiolitis is the most likely cause of acute respiratory distress. Bronchodilators are not recommended in children under 12 months old, consistent with current guidelines for the management of acute bronchiolitis.1

Children aged 1–5 years

Inhaled short-acting beta2 agonists are effective bronchodilators in children aged 1–5 years.2

Short-acting beta2 agonists may be less effective for wheezing in children under 2 years old than in older children.3 However, many clinical trials in infants have included those with bronchiolitis, so there is limited evidence for the effects of short-acting beta2 agonists specifically in asthma.3 Studies conducted in emergency departments have shown that short-acting beta2 agonists are more effective than placebo in controlling acute wheeze in children under 2 years, but may not achieve clinically significant improvements.3

Inhaled short-acting beta2 agonists are generally well tolerated in children aged 1–5 years.2 Adverse effects can include muscle tremor, headache, palpitations and agitation. Muscle tremor and agitation are common with initial use of standard doses, but often settle over time. Serious adverse effects such as hypokalaemia have been reported at very high doses.2

Oral short-acting beta2 agonists are associated with adverse effects2 and should not be used for the treatment of asthma in any age group.

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Short-acting beta-2 agonist relievers for children: 6 years and over

Inhaled short-acting beta2 agonists is the major class of bronchodilators used for relief of symptoms in asthma.4

Children with well-controlled asthma need little or no reliever (on no more than 2 days per week).

Increased use of short-acting beta2 agonists for relief of asthma symptoms, especially daily use, indicates deterioration of asthma control.56

Dispensing of 3 or more canisters in a year (average 1.6 puffs per day) is associated with increased risk of flare-ups.7 Dispensing 12 or more canisters in a year (average 6.6 puffs per day) is associated with increased risk of asthma death.2

Table. Definition of levels of recent asthma symptom control in children (regardless of current treatment regimen)

Good control Partial control Poor control

All of:

  • Daytime symptoms ≤2 days per week (lasting only a few minutes and rapidly relieved by rapid-acting bronchodilator)
  • No limitation of activities
  • No symptoms§ during night or when wakes up
  • Need for SABA reliever# ≤2 days per week

Any of:

  • Daytime symptoms >2 days per week (lasting only a few minutes and rapidly relieved by rapid-acting bronchodilator)
  • Any limitation of activities*
  • Any symptoms during night or when wakes up††
  • Need for SABA reliever# >2 days per week

Either of:

  • Daytime symptoms >2 days per week (lasting from minutes to hours or recurring, and partially or fully relieved by SABA reliever)
  • ≥3 features of partial control within the same week

SABA: short-acting beta2 agonist

† e.g. wheezing or breathing problems

‡ child is fully active; runs and plays without symptoms

§ including no coughing during sleep

# not including doses taken prophylactically before exercise. (Record this separately and take into account when assessing management.)

​* e.g. wheeze or breathlessness during exercise, vigorous play or laughing

†† e.g. waking with symptoms of wheezing or breathing problems

Notes:

Recent asthma control is based on symptoms over the previous 4 weeks. Each child’s risk factors for future asthma outcomes should also be assessed and taken into account in management.

Validated questionnaires can be used for assessing recent symptom control:
Test for Respiratory and Asthma Control in Kids (TRACK) for children < 5 years
Childhood Asthma Control Test (C-ACT) for children aged 4–11 years

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Short-acting beta-2 agonist relievers for adults and adolescents

Short-acting beta2 agonists are used to:

  • relieve asthma symptoms
  • prevent exercise-induced bronchoconstriction
  • relieve exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.

The duration of therapeutic effect is approximately 4 hours.

When using a pressurised metered-dose inhaler for salbutamol, the use of a large-volume spacer increases the proportion of drug delivered to the lung.8 For adults, it is not essential to use a spacer with salbutamol for day-to-day symptoms if adequate relief is obtained with a pressurised metered dose inhaler alone.

Patients with well-controlled asthma do not need to use their reliever on more than 2 days per week, not counting doses taken before exercise to prevent exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.

Increased use of short-acting beta2 agonists for relief of asthma symptoms, especially daily use, indicates worsening asthma control.

Dispensing of three or more canisters in a year (average 1.6 puffs per day) is associated with increased risk of flare-ups.7 Dispensing 12 or more canisters in a year (average 6.6 puffs per day) is associated with increased risk of asthma death.9

Note: Routine preventive doses of short-acting beta2 agonist taken before exercise are not counted when assessing recent asthma symptom control. However, persistent exercise-induced bronchoconstriction generally indicates inadequate asthma control.

Table. Definition of levels of recent asthma symptom control in adults and adolescents (regardless of current treatment regimen)

Good control

Partial control

Poor control

All of:

  • Daytime symptoms ≤2 days per week
  • Need for SABA reliever ≤2 days per week
  • No limitation of activities
  • No symptoms during night or on waking

One or two of:

  • Daytime symptoms >2 days per week
  • Need for SABA reliever >2 days per week
  • Any limitation of activities
  • Any symptoms during night or on waking

Three or more of:

  • Daytime symptoms >2 days per week
  • Need for SABA reliever >2 days per week
  • Any limitation of activities
  • Any symptoms during night or on waking

SABA: short-acting beta2-agonist

† SABA, not including doses taken prophylactically before exercise. (Record this separately and take into account when assessing management.)

Note: Recent asthma symptom control is based on symptoms over the previous 4 weeks.

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Over-use of short-acting beta-2 agonists

High use of short-acting beta2 agonists may, itself, increase the risk of asthma flare-ups:1011

Regular use of short-acting beta2 agonists leads to receptor tolerance (down-regulation) to their bronchoprotective and bronchodilator effects. Tolerance becomes more apparent with worsening bronchoconstriction. In severe asthma, this could result in a poor response to emergency treatment.12

  • Data from population and case-control studies has led to concerns that the frequent use of short-acting beta2 agonists, including salbutamol, is associated with increased risk of asthma deaths.4 The risk of asthma deaths was greatest for fenoterol, which has since been withdrawn from use.10 For salbutamol, the risk is greatest for doses above 1000 microg/day (10 puffs).
  • Dispensing of 3 or more canisters of short-acting beta2 agonist in a year (average 1.6 puffs per day) is associated with increased risk of flare-ups13 Dispensing 12 or more canisters in a year (average 6.6 puffs per day) is associated with increased risk of asthma death.9

When high doses of short-acting beta2 agonist are needed (e.g. dose repeated at intervals of less than 4 hours in a person with acute severe asthma), the patient should be under medical supervision and should usually also be receiving systemic corticosteroids.

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Combination budesonide/formoterol maintenance-and-reliever regimen in adults and adolescents: overview of efficacy

Low-dose budesonide/formoterol combination can be used as reliever for asthma symptoms (instead of using a short-acting beta2 agonist reliever), in addition to its use as regular long-term preventer treatment.14, 15,  16,  1718, 19 The following formulations can be used in maintenance-and-reliever regimens:

  • dry-powder inhaler (Symbicort Turbuhaler) 100/6 microg or 200/6 microg
  • pressurised metered-dose inhaler (Symbicort Rapihaler) 50/3 microg or 100/3 microg.

Neither the 400/12 microg dry-powder inhaler nor the 200/6 microg pressurised metered-dose inhaler should be used in this way.

Overall, clinical trials show that budesonide/formoterol combination as maintenance and reliever reduces the risk of flare-ups that require oral corticosteroids, compared with other current preventer regimens and compared with a fixed higher dose of inhaled corticosteroids.20

Pooled data from five randomised controlled trials assessing budesonide/formoterol maintenance-and-reliever regimens showed that similar or better levels of asthma control were achieved with budesonide/formoterol maintenance-and-reliever compared with the conventional maintenance regimen comparators:16

  • higher-dose budesonide
  • same dose budesonide/formoterol
  • higher-dose inhaled corticosteroid/long-acting beta2 agonist (budesonide/formoterol or fluticasone propionate/salmeterol).

In randomised clinical trials in patients with a history of asthma flare-up within the previous 12 months (and therefore at greater risk of flare-up in the next 12 months), the use of formoterol/budesonide as maintenance-and-reliever regimen reduced the risk of asthma flare-ups that required treatment with oral corticosteroids, compared with the use of any of the following (plus a short-acting beta2 agonist reliever as needed):162122

  • the same combination as maintenance treatment only
  • higher-dose combination as maintenance treatment only
  • higher-dose inhaled corticosteroids.

Meta-analysis of six randomised controlled trials found that maintenance-and-reliever treatment with budesonide/formoterol reduced the risk of severe asthma flare-ups (use of oral corticosteroids for 3 days or more, hospitalisation or emergency department visits), compared with higher-dose inhaled corticosteroid alone, or in combination with a long-acting beta2 agonist.23

In open-label studies in which patients were not selected for a previous history of flare-ups, there was no overall difference in time to first flare-up between budesonide/formoterol as maintenance-and-reliever regimen and conventional maintenance regimens (including inhaled corticosteroid or inhaled corticosteroid/long-acting beta2 agonist combinations, leukotriene receptor antagonists, xanthines or any other asthma medicines) with rapid-onset beta2 agonist reliever (selected according to clinician’s choice).24 However, the inhaled corticosteroid dose was higher with conventional maintenance regimens.

Note: The fluticasone propionate/formoterol combination is approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration only for regular maintenance therapy.

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Beta-2 agonists for exercise-induced bronchoconstriction

Inhaled beta2-adrenergic receptor agonists are the most effective medicines for short-term protection against exercise-induced bronchoconstriction and for accelerating recovery of lung function after exercise.25

However, short-acting beta2 agonists should only be taken intermittently (i.e. less than daily), as necessary for preventing exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or relieving exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.25 Daily use of short-acting beta2 agonists may actually increase the severity of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.25

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Beta-2 agonists for exercise-induced bronchoconstriction: doses

Intermittent short-acting beta2 agonists administered by inhalation 5 to 20 minutes before exercise are effective in protecting against exercise-induced bronchoconstriction for 2–4 hours.25 Salbutamol and terbutaline are equally effective.25

Recommended doses are as follows:

  • salbutamol 100–400 micrograms by inhalation, 15 minutes before exercise
  • terbutaline 500–1000 micrograms by inhalation, 15 minutes before exercise.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) no longer requires a Therapeutic Use Exemption application for an athlete to use salbutamol (maximum 1600 microg per day) or to declare use during drug testing.

  • Terbutaline is prohibited by WADA. Exemption may be given in certain circumstances. WADA guidelines prohibit all beta2 agonists except salbutamol (maximum 1600 micrograms over 24 hours), formoterol (maximum 36 micrograms over 24 hours) and salmeterol when taken by inhalation in accordance with the manufacturers’ recommended therapeutic regime.
  • When prescribing for competitive athletes, check which substances are permitted. Refer to ASADA or WADA for a current list of prohibited substances.

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Salbutamol in acute asthma

Route of administration

Inhaler plus spacer, or nebuliser

Among patients with acute asthma who do not require mechanical ventilation, salbutamol delivered via a pressurised metered-dose inhaler with spacer is at least as effective as salbutamol delivered via nebuliser in preschool children (with viral-induced wheezing or acute asthma)26 and adults,2728 and is equivalent or superior in school-aged children.29, 30, 31, [REFERENCE991]

The use of nebulisers increases the risk of transmitting respiratory infections to staff and other patients,32 and increases the risk of adverse effects.

Intravenous salbutamol

IV salbutamol is generally reserved for use in patients with severe acute asthma that does not respond to inhaled bronchodilators.

Efficacy

Overall, intravenous short-acting beta2 agonists do not appear to be superior to inhaled short-acting beta2 agonist.33

Adults

Benefits have not been demonstrated in adults.33 

Children

Very limited evidence from one study suggested that the addition of IV salbutamol to inhaled salbutamol reduced recovery time in children with severe acute asthma in the emergency department.33

However, there is a lack of consensus on the appropriate dose of IV salbutamol for children.34 Recommendations differ between guidelines in Australia35 and elsewhere.34 Doses have not been calculated based on age-specific pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic data. The doses recommended in guidelines are generally relatively higher than for adults on a micrograms per kilogram body weight basis.

Adverse effects

Compared with inhaled salbutamol, intravenous salbutamol is associated with increased risk of adverse effects including tremor and hypokalaemia.3334  Concomitant use of the inhalation and IV routes may increase the risk of salbutamol toxicity.36

Note: Salbutamol concentrate for infusion is available in 5 mL ampoules containing salbutamol sulfate equivalent to 5 mg (1 mg/mL) salbutamol in a sterile isotonic solution (Ventolin obstetric injection). Salbutamol for injection is also available in ampoules of salbutamol sulphate equivalent to 500 microg salbutamol in 1 mL sterile isotonic solution (Ventolin injection).

Salbutamol dosing regimens

There is very little evidence from clinical trials to guide dosing intervals for salbutamol treatment in acute asthma.

One placebo-controlled study conducted in the emergency department among adults with acute asthma (FEV1 <60% predicted or normal) showed that, in those who did not show a clear response to the first salbutamol dose, repeating the dose at intervals of 30 minutes or less was more effective than every 60 minutes.37 However, for patients who showed clear improvement after the first dose of salbutamol via pressurised metered-dose inhaler and spacer, there was no advantage in repeating the dose more often than every 60 minutes until full recovery (extra doses can be given as needed).37

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Beta-2 receptor tolerance

Short-acting beta2 agonists

In laboratory studies, regular use of short-acting beta2 agonists leads to receptor tolerance (down-regulation) to their bronchoprotective and bronchodilator effects.12

In clinical trials, regular use of short-acting beta2 agonists is associated with greater instability of lung function and a higher risk of asthma flare-ups.3839

In clinical practice, frequent use of short-acting beta2-agonists may lead to worsening of asthma symptoms. This may be improved by deliberately reducing short-acting beta2 agonist use and, in some cases, using ipratropium bromide as an alternative reliever medicine medication to allow restoration of beta2-receptor responsiveness.40

Long-acting beta2 agonists

In laboratory studies, regular use of long-acting beta2 agonists results in reduced duration of protection against airway hyperresponsiveness, and prolonged recovery of airway function after short-acting beta2 agonist, which is thought to be due to receptor tolerance (down-regulation) of beta2 receptors in bronchial smooth muscle and mast cells (evidence from laboratory studies).41 These findings have led to concerns about reduced effectiveness of beta2 agonists when needed for preventing exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or reversing acute asthma due to trigger exposure.41 Sensitivity to short-acting beta2 agonists returns to normal within 72 hours of stopping long-acting beta2 agonist treatment.41

However, the clinical effects of beta receptor tolerance in patients taking long-acting beta2 agonists are unclear.42 Clinical trials assessing regular use of long-acting beta2 agonists in combination with inhaled corticosteroids have not reported clinically significant adverse effects attributable to beta receptor tolerance.43 Two Emergency Department studies in patients with acute asthma did not observe increased risk of hospitalisation among those taking salmeterol.4445

The use of budesonide/formoterol as a reliever may result in lower total use of beta2 agonist compared with the use of short-acting beta2 agonist relievers, based on a study in patients taking regular maintenance budesonide/formoterol, which monitored inhaler actuations electonically.21

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References

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  45. Korosec M, Novak RD, Myers E, et al. Salmeterol does not compromise the bronchodilator response to albuterol during acute episodes of asthma. Am J Med. 1999; 107: 209-13. Available from: http://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(99)00222-3/fulltext