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Breathing treatment: Types and benefits

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What conditions require treatment?CorticosteroidsBronchodilatorsEpinephrineMucolyticsAntifungal antibioticsExerciseIs it effective?Side effectsWhen do you need treatment?Summary
Respiratory conditions such as asthma usually require breathing treatments to help you breathe freely. These treatments allow the medication to enter the lungs quickly.
Medically reviewed by Nick Villalobos, MD
Written by D. M. Pollock
Updated on

Respiratory conditions that restrict your breathing require direct treatment methods. Breathing treatments are available in several forms, such as injections, oral tablets, nebulizers, and inhalers.

An inhaler is a small device that stores medication in an aerosol, allowing you to inhale the medication. Delivery of medication through inhalers is a common asthma treatment.

A nebulizer allows you to breathe in medication as a fine mist through a face mask. Although nebulizers are more common in hospitals, some people may use them at home, specifically for oxygen treatment.

Read on to learn about the different types of breathing treatments available, the conditions they may help treat, and their benefits.

What conditions may require breathing treatments?

An image of someone using an inhaler.
Photography by MixMedia/Getty Images

Any health condition that makes breathing difficult may require breathing treatment.

Some conditions that may require breathing treatment include:

Corticosteroids

If breathing difficulty is due to an inflammatory response, corticosteroids can help reduce this. These medications mimic the hormones your body naturally produces to reduce inflammation from asthma or certain allergic reactions. A healthcare professional may recommend corticosteroids to treat COPD.  

Corticosteroids are available as oral tablets, inhalers, or intravenous (IV) infusions (injections into your vein given over time). However, they’re most often used in the form of an inhaler while treating breathing problems.

Inhaler corticosteroids are often a long-term treatment for chronic conditions such as asthma. These inhalers can help to prevent symptoms and help manage your condition.

Inhaler steroids can help prevent inflammation in the airways and reduce mucus production, which can further obstruct your airway.

Some examples of inhaler corticosteroids include:

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Bronchodilators

Bronchodilators, or beta-2 agonists, are medications that are available as inhalers to help relax the airways. They start working as soon as you inhale them and help provide emergency relief when you have difficulty breathing. These medications are also useful in providing regular relief from constant symptoms.

For conditions such as asthma and COPD, doctors prescribe bronchodilators to treat both long-term and immediate symptoms. Bronchodilators work by stopping the constriction of your airways that occurs when your parasympathetic nervous system takes over.

If you have asthma, your doctor will likely prescribe a bronchodilator to manage and prevent asthma attacks.

To maximize the delivery of these medications, follow the steps below:

  1. Fully exhale
  2. Place the inhaler in your mouth.
  3. Take a full inhalation.
  4. Wait 10 seconds before breathing out again to allow the medication to spread in the lungs.

Some common bronchodilators include:

  • albuterol (ProAir HFA)
  • levalbuterol (Xopenex)
  • formoterol (Atock) can be a good option when used alongside another medication in the form of a combination inhaler

Epinephrine

If you experience allergic reactions, including a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), you may find it difficult to breathe during a reaction. This can be life threatening without medical intervention. Epinephrine can help to stop this straight away, usually in the form of an emergency injection or EpiPen.

Epinephrine can help symptoms of asthma as it can relax the airways. It is available over the counter (OTC) as Primatene Mist HFA.

Mucolytics

Mucolytics are medications that help to loosen phlegm and sputum that forms in your airways. Some conditions, such as COPD, certain allergies, and chronic breathing disorders like cystic fibrosis, can cause excess mucus production.

If you have too much mucus in your airways, it can restrict your breathing, and cause coughing and inflammation.

Examples of mucolytic medications include acetylcysteine (Mucomyst) and carbocysteine (Mucodyne).

Antifungal antibiotics

Antifungal antibiotics can help treat infections from microbes present in your airways, such as pneumonia. They can treat infections such as aspergillosis, which can occur from mold and affect your ability to breathe.

Doctors usually treat aspergillosis with the medication voriconazole (Vfend).  

How can exercise help?

Specific exercises can help people with chronic lung conditions like COPD. In the same way aerobic exercises help strengthen your heart, breathing exercises make your lungs more efficient.

These exercises work on the basic idea that stale air in your lungs leaves less room for fresh oxygen. So clearing stale air can increase your capacity to breathe fresh air.

Some of these exercises include:

  • Pursed lip breathing: This reduces the number of breaths you take, keeping your airways open for longer. Simply breathe in through your nose, and breathe out for at least twice as long through your mouth.
  • Belly breathing: This focuses on how your abdomen interacts with your breath. Breathe out through your mouth at least 2–3 times as long as you inhale. Relax your shoulders to really feel your diaphragm working.

How effective is breathing treatment?

The effectiveness of different breathing treatments depends on many factors, such as the type of medication, the delivery system, and the condition doctors prescribe it for.

In general, inhalers and nebulizers are effective at delivering medications directly to the lungs. However, for them to work, people need to use them correctly. When used incorrectly, the medication may not be as effective.

If you need help using your inhaler or nebulizer correctly, consider speaking with a healthcare professional who can show you how and when to use it.

What are the side effects of breathing treatment?

Side effects of breathing treatment are specific to the type of medication you’re taking.

Taking medication through an inhaler, such as albuterol, can reduce the severity of side effects. Inhalers can cause a dry throat or a cough, but drinking plenty of fluids can help.

If you’re concerned about the side effects of your breathing treatment, consider speaking with a healthcare professional, as they can help you determine your best options.

How do you know if you need breathing treatment?

There are plenty of medications to assist with breathing, which are available OTC as well as by prescription.

If you’re having difficulty breathing, consider speaking with your doctor about the best treatment options for you.

Signs that you require medical help to improve your breathing include:

  • having an existing respiratory condition that’s getting worse
  • experiencing frequent allergic reactions
  • shortness of breath while exercising
  • congestion or coughing

If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, seek medical attention immediately:

  • severe lightheadedness
  • severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
  • loss of consciousness due to lack of breath
  • breathing feels impossible

Summary

Breathing problems, both long term and short term, require treatment to relieve discomfort and help you to breathe correctly.

Inhalers or nebulizers often deliver breathing treatments. Intravenous (IV) infusion is another method of breathing treatments.

If you have a chronic respiratory condition, regular appointments with a healthcare professional will help them determine whether your treatment is working and whether other methods may work better.

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