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Rescue inhalers only work as well as the people who use them. And patients with asthma are much better at using their inhalers when medical professionals offer interactive, hands-on instruction, according to a new study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society this week.

Why it matters:

Proper use of inhalers can reduce the number of asthma attacks, including episodes requiring hospitalization.


“Respiratory inhalers come in many shapes and sizes,” said Dr. Valerie Press, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and the corresponding author of the study. “So something that’s correct for one type of inhaler may be incorrect for another.”

The nitty gritty: 

Researchers assessed inhaler technique for 120 asthma patients at two Chicago hospitals. Some got just a brief instruction before discharge. Others got more intensive instruction, known as “teach-to-goal;” health-care personnel watched them use the inhaler and carefully corrected errors.  Researchers tracked patients in both groups for 90 days after discharge.

You’ll want to know: 

Only 11 percent of the teach-to-goal group misused their inhalers immediately after the instructions, compared to 60 percent of the other group. And only 17 percent of those who got intense instruction had asthma emergencies or acute-care visits within 30 days, compared to 36 percent of the other group.


But keep in mind:

Benefits of inhaler instruction declined over time. By the 90-day mark, 48 percent of the teach-to-goal group and 76 percent of the others were misusing their inhalers.

The bottom line: 

Press noted two important steps to get the most from an asthma inhaler: First, the user has to “really empty the lungs before taking in asthma medicine.” And using a spacer device with the inhaler allows time for the medicine to reach the lungs, rather than just coat the throat.

But even after being instructed on the proper use, many patients require ongoing instruction.