Dear Dr. Roach • I am wondering if there is a safer inhaler to use in place of an albuterol inhaler. I have high blood pressure that, at times, is very difficult to control. I have not yet tried the albuterol inhaler. I was prepared to, but stopped before doing so after reading the side effects and potential dangers to the heart for someone with high blood pressure. — Anon.
Answer • Asthma is a condition of reversible airway obstruction. It has many triggers, such as smoke or other airborne irritants. Exercise, infection, cold air and emotional stress also can trigger an asthma attack, and in some people, attacks can happen for no clear reason.
Once an attack occurs, treatment with a fast-acting inhaler like albuterol provides relief for most people, and it can even be lifesaving in people with very severe asthma. I recommend that all people with asthma have a fast-acting inhaler just in case. People with frequent symptoms should carry it with them, as well as keep one in their home/work/car as appropriate. During an attack, the benefit outweighs the negligible risk to the heart.
However, it’s not optimal to take medicines like albuterol all the time. They do raise the heart rate, causing palpitations and tremor. Albuterol usually does not raise blood pressure significantly.
People who use a lot of albuterol or similar inhalers are more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than those who don’t. To some extent, this is due to having more severe illness.
Inhaled steroids are another type of inhaler for asthma. They prevent attacks, instead of treating them, and they are useless for people who are having an acute attack. However, people who use more inhaled steroids are less likely to be hospitalized than those who don’t.
People who need albuterol should take it. People who need to take albuterol frequently should be on a better control medication, such as inhaled steroids, so that they need albuterol less often.
Readers • The booklet on edema and lymphedema provides information on the causes of foot and ankle swelling. Readers can order a copy by writing:
Book No. 106
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Orlando, FL 32803
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Dr. Roach regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but will incorporate them in the column whenever possible. Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu or request an order form of available health newsletters at 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, Fla. 32803.
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