Inhaled medications are the mainstay of therapy, and are delivered two different ways. The first is a nebulizer, which is a machine that emits humidified air combined with medication. The child inhales the air through a mask.
The other way to receive inhaled medication is through "Metered Dose Inhalers." MDIs are the puffers that most people are familiar with. Medication is sprayed directly into the mouth, but a contraption called a "spacer" helps make sure the medication goes directly into the lungs. Using an MDI without a spacer leads to half of the medication missing its mark – a waste of money that also comes with the risk of under medicating. In general, MDIs (as opposed to nebulizers) are cheaper, more portable, and quicker and are therefore becoming the modality of choice in pediatrics.
So what's in the medication? The two most common groups of meds are preventative medications of which corticosteroids are the mainstay and rescue medications of which albuterol is the mainstay.
Inhaled corticosteroids are used on a daily basis, whether the child has symptoms or not, to prevent future episodes of wheezing. Think of it as sunblock for the lungs. The child puts it on every day to prevent future troubles.
Beta-agonists are the Aloe vera that soothes the sunburn once it happens. Albuterol is the most commonly used beta-agonist. It works by relaxing the muscles of the airways in the lungs, helping them open to let more air through. The effects of Albuterol are short lived. It needs to be given again and again, usually every four hours, until symptoms subside. The Albuterol, or aloe Vera, makes one feel better after the burn, but does not prevent future episodes. Only sunblock, or inhaled corticosteroids, can do that.
Some parents get freaked out by the word "steroids," picturing pumped-up athletes risking illegal consumption just to make their muscles bigger. Rest assured that corticosteroids are not the same thing. Corticosteroids are similar to steroids that already occur naturally in the body.