Budesonide inhaler: how does the asthma drug alleviate Covid symptoms - and can I get it from my doctor?

Certain inhaler brand names familiar with asthma and COPD sufferers contain the widely-available drug.

A new trial has discovered a cheap asthma drug can help to alleviate coronavirus symptoms at home.

Just two puffs of a budesonide inhaler could help ease early symptoms in over-50s, say researchers, with some signs that the inhaler could also reduce hospitalisations.

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What is a budesonide inhaler?

The drug is commonly found in brown and beige inhalers for asthma and COPD sufferers.

Budesonide is a widely-available steroid medicine used for asthma and obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) which is usually inhaled through an inhaler.

These inhalers are usually brown or beige in colour and are referred to as “preventer inhalers” because they prevent users from getting symptoms.

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How does it work on coronavirus symptoms?

Because coronavirus can badly damage the lungs, researchers believe budesonide has the potential to mitigate damage in at-risk patients, improving their recovery time.

Early on in the pandemic, doctors and scientists noticed that asthma patients were under-represented in hospitalisation figures, with the drugs they used to treat their condition believed to be the reason.

Subsequently, a University of Oxford trial involving more than 1,700 people in high-risk groups for coronavirus tested use of inhalers to see what impact they could have on symptoms.

All those involved in the trial were over 50, either with an underlying health condition, or over 65 with no health problems, who had contracted coronavirus and were being treated - at least initially - at home.

During the first two weeks of the trial, 751 of the participants were given a budesonide inhaler to use twice a day, with this group recovering an average of three days sooner than another group given normal care.

There was some evidence that slightly fewer of those taking the drug needed hospitalisation for coronavirus, though researchers say further evidence is needed on this point.

Prof Mona Bafadhel, one of the researchers involved in the trial, said the drug, like other coricosteroids breathed in using an inhaler, "work[s] at the site of the virus where it is likely to be causing the biggest effect and is widely known to reduce inflammation".

Tests also suggest the drug may reduce viral replication of the virus in the body.

The results published by the University of Oxford are interim, with final results - including more data - expected at the end of April.

How can I get hold of a budesonide inhaler?

Off the back of evidence that budesonide can help relieve coronavirus symptoms, the NHS have now made the drug available for prescription by GPs on a case-by-case basis.

Prior to this, there were few options available to those recovering from Covid at home aside from basic painkillers like paracetamol.

The inhalers can be prescribed to anyone over 50 with an underlying health condition, or anyone over 65.

You should contact your GP if you believe you may benefit from an inhaler to treat coronavirus, but make sure to read the leaflet that comes with the medicine carefully to assess any risks.

The NHS says anyone already using a steroid inhaler to treat asthma or COPD should continue using it as normal and should not adjust the dose.