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How Albuterol Works in a COPD Patient

author image Deleshia Kinney
Dr. Deleshia Kinney received her M.D. from Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. She began writing professionally when she started her own medical marketing and consulting firm. Since then she has been providing quality health care consulting, publications, and presentations to community health organizations including the American Cancer Society, Urban League, Illinois Public Health Association, and Illinois Department of Public Health.
How Albuterol Works in a COPD Patient
Albuterol and COPD Photo Credit Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images

How Albuterol Works

Normally, air travels through the mouth, pass the oropharynx, down the trachea, to the small air passages, and finally to the alveoli. The alveoli are small, inflated, balloon-shaped structures where oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide, thus sustaining life. This exchange is interrupted when there is obstruction anywhere along this pathway. Causes of airway obstruction include excess production of mucous, smooth muscle contractions, inflammation, and destruction of the airways themselves. COPD is an umbrella term given to this group of diseases.

The Global Initiative on Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease -- GOLD -- , further defines COPD as chronic limitations to airflow due to obstruction that are partially reversible and more than likely progressive in nature. Asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis are all considered chronic obstructive diseases. Patients may have mild to severe disease occasionally experiencing exacerbations or worsening of symptoms. Stable COPD patients may quickly advance to unstable due to infections, allergens, exercise, stress, chemical exposure, or trauma. This is when emergency relief drugs like Albuterol are necessary to alleviate symptoms during this time. Symptoms may include, difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, retention of carbon dioxide, among others.

The Chemical Process of Albuterol

Albuterol belongs to a class of drugs called beta-agonist. While other drugs are used in the relief of COPD, each drug has a specific role. A beta-agonist's major role is to work to correct lung obstruction due to smooth muscle constriction. Its mechanism of action is at the cellular level. Albuterol binds with beta2-adrenergic receptors in the lungs' system, causing smooth muscle relaxation and allowing the airway passages and alveoli to open up. This allows unobstructed air flow leading to a subsequent relief of symptoms.

Combining with other drugs, beta-agonists work to prevent the release of inflammatory products, improve clearance of mucous and prevent the leakage of immune response cells into airways.

How Albuterol Is Administered

Delivering the drug to the lungs as efficiently as possible is essential. B-agonist come in different preparations. Albuterol can be delivered by mouth or by inhalation. As an inhaled bronchodilator, the drug is delivered to the lungs as a fine mist from a metered dose inhaler -- MDI.

Patient response time is also a consideration when using a drug. When patients with COPD are in emergent need of relief, they need a drug with a quick response time. Albuterol works to help relieve symptoms in a matter of minutes.

Albuterol stays in the blood stream for up to 8 hours. Therefore, it is considered a short-acting drug used in the short-term management of COPD. It is both fast and potent, helping to save lives.

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