Is there a way to limit the side effects of albuterol, which I take to relieve asthma attacks?

Answers from James T C Li, M.D., Ph.D.

You may be able to lessen some side effects of albuterol if you change the method in which you take the drug or the amount of drug you take. You may also find that a different prescription asthma drug has fewer side effects for you.

Albuterol is a type of drug called a short-acting bronchodilator. It provides relief from an asthma attack by relaxing the smooth muscles in your airways. It's usually taken with a metered dose inhaler (ProAir HFA, Proventil HFA, Ventolin HFA), but it can also be inhaled with a device called a nebulizer or taken as a pill or liquid.

Side effects of albuterol include:

  • Tremor or shakiness
  • Nervousness
  • Headache
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Muscle aches or pain
  • Throat or nasal irritation

Side effects that are more serious — though less common — include:

  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Feelings of fluttering or pounding heart (palpitations)

If you find it difficult to tolerate side effects of albuterol, talk to your doctor about the following options:

  • Changing delivery method. Albuterol side effects are less likely if you use an inhaler instead of taking a pill or liquid. If you use a nebulizer to inhale the drug, you may lessen symptoms if you can switch to a metered dose inhaler. If you already use a metered dose inhaler, symptoms may be reduced if you use a spacer or chamber device, which is attached to the inhaler.
  • Managing your asthma. In general, the severity of side effects depends on how much of the drug you take. Albuterol is intended to treat noticeable asthma symptoms, but it is not intended for long-term asthma management. If you are taking frequent doses, your doctor will want to assess your overall treatment plan. Talk to your doctor if you take albuterol three or more days a week or you use an entire inhaler canister within a month. Better management of your asthma may lessen your need for albuterol and lessen side effects.
  • Changing prescriptions. You may be able to take a different prescription short-acting bronchodilator, such as levalbuterol (Xopenex). This drug may result in less bothersome side effects.
Oct. 15, 2014