It is quite common for asthmatics to be prescribed two types of inhaler: a preventer and a reliever.

Whilst there is no official colour-coded system for inhalers; the devices are often referred to, by patients and healthcare professionals alike, by their respective colours. It is important to make yourself familiar with the look and name of the medication that you take. If you have any questions about your treatment you should speak to your doctor.

Here we will discuss the different types of inhaler, and the colours frequently associated with them.

What colour are reliever inhalers?

Reliever inhalers are often blue, but can vary.

This type of inhaler offers fast-acting treatment to relieve asthma symptoms at the onset, and also those of an asthma attack. If you are prescribed a reliever inhaler you should keep it with you all the time, in case you need to use it urgently.

The active ingredient in reliever inhalers is a short-acting beta-2 agonist; quite often salbutamol or terbutaline. This treatment quickly relaxes airways so that breathing can return to normal.

NHS guidelines state that if you use your reliever more than three times in one week, your asthma is not well-controlled and you should speak to your GP or asthma specialist. They may need to review your medication or talk to you about ways you can limit your exposure to triggers.

Examples of reliever inhalers include:

Your GP or asthma nurse may suggest trying several different reliever inhalers to find the one that suits you best.

Serevent, containing salmeterol, is a long-lasting reliever as it works for up to 12 hours after use. Long-lasting reliever inhalers may be green in colour, but again this is not a hard and fast rule: colours may vary.

What colour are preventer inhalers?

Preventer inhalers are often brown, but again, this can vary.

Preventers contain an active ingredient known as a corticosteroid. A regular, low dose of this medication builds up in your system over time to keep asthma symptoms at bay, by reducing trigger sensitivity and inflammation.

You should use your preventer inhaler as prescribed by your doctor, even if you feel well. This is usually twice a day to reduce the chances of having an asthma attack.

A preventer inhaler should not be used in the event of an asthma attack, as the active ingredient will not act fast enough to alleviate your symptoms.

Some examples of preventer inhalers are:

Not all asthma patients require a preventer inhaler, but if your doctor prescribes one then you should use it as directed.

What colour are combination inhalers?

Combination inhalers can come in a variety of colours such as pink, red, yellow, purple or grey.

This type of inhaler contains both a long-acting beta-agonist and a corticosteroid. For example, Seretide is a purple-coloured combination inhaler and contains the active ingredients fluticasone and salmeterol.

The two active components allow the medication to work in the two different ways described above simultaneously: both relieving symptoms and administering long term treatment.

This type of inhaler may be prescribed to asthma patients who are finding it hard to control their symptoms.

Even though a combination inhaler contains some relieving properties, you may still be prescribed a fast-acting reliever if your doctor thinks you need one.

What are the rules for the colour of asthma inhalers?

While blue and brown are commonly used colours, inhalers are manufactured by many different pharmaceutical brands and are used by patients across the globe. There are no rules to restrict what colours are chosen by the manufacturers for the different types of inhaler; they are free to use whichever colour they see fit.

Over the years the two main types of inhaler have, for the most part, stuck to the convention of brown and blue.

There have been calls from groups of asthma specialists and healthcare professionals for a regulated colour-coded system to be implemented; and particularly so for relievers as these need to be identified quickly when used in an emergency.

The UK Inhaler Group (UKIG) carried out a recent survey which found that 95 percent of surveyed healthcare professionals felt that the blue colour convention was important when referring to reliever inhalers.

What to do if you’re unsure

While there are loosely held colour scheme for some inhalers, they can come in a variety of colours. Speak to your pharmacist if you receive an inhaler which isn’t the colour it normally is, or if you use two inhalers but aren’t clear on which one is which.

Page last reviewed:  18/07/2018 | Next review due:  06/08/2020