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Steroid inhalers

BMJ Group Medical Reference


This information is for people who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It tells you about steroid inhalers, a treatment for COPD. It is based on the best and most up-to-date research.

Do they work?

Yes, but only after taking them for at least six months and maybe much longer ( 12 months to 24 months). If you have moderate or severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), breathing in these drugs every day can help your lungs work slightly better. They may also help prevent attacks (when your symptoms suddenly get worse).

But there are drawbacks to taking steroids. You may get a yeast infection in your mouth (this is called thrush), and you may get bruising on your skin. You can also get more serious side effects if you take them for a long time.

What are they?

Steroids help reduce inflammation in your airways so that you can breathe more easily. They're a long-term treatment. Your doctor will recommend another type of inhaler if you need quick relief from breathing problems.

The steroids used for COPD aren't the same drugs that some athletes and bodybuilders use. Those are called anabolic steroids. The steroids used to treat COPD are called corticosteroids. They are like chemicals your body makes to fight inflammation.

You can get several different kinds of steroid inhaler. We've listed some of these below (with their brand names):

Inhaling steroids puts the medicine into your lungs, where it is needed. Your doctor may advise you to try a steroid inhaler in addition to other treatments for COPD.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is the organisation that decides which treatments should be available on the NHS. NICE recommends that you should start using a steroid inhaler if tests show your lungs are working very poorly, or if you need two or more courses of antibiotics or steroid tablets in a year. [16]


The metered-dose inhaler (MDI) is the most common kind. It's a small plastic holder with a slot where you put an aerosol canister. Pressing on the canister releases exactly one dose of the medicine. It comes out as a puff of tiny droplets that you slowly breathe in through your mouth.

There are also other kinds of inhaler that some people find easier to use. These include breath-activated inhalers, which release the drug as you breathe in, and dry powder devices.

Most inhalers now are CFC-free. CFCs are chemicals that used to be widely used in aerosols. CFC-free inhalers work just the same as older models but are less harmful to the environment. You might notice that your medicine tastes slightly different.


If you have more severe COPD, you can also take steroids through a compressed-air sprayer called a nebuliser. It turns the medicine into a mist that you can breathe in through a mask.

Nebulisers are bulky, but they let you get a much bigger dose of medicine than an ordinary inhaler. Some people also find them easier to use, because all you need to do is breathe through the mask.

How often should you use them?

People with COPD usually take inhaled steroids at least twice a day. Regular doses work best to keep the inflammation in your airways under control.

Last Updated: March 13, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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