Understand Your Asthma Medication
There are a variety of medicines available to treat asthma, but there is no "best" medicine for all people. Each person's asthma is different, and your healthcare provider and healthcare team can work with you to set up the best plan for you based on your symptoms and needs. By taking the right medicine at the right time, you can:
- Breathe better
- Do more of the things you want to do
- Have fewer asthma symptoms
There are many good treatments for asthma available today. Some asthma medicines relax your airways and help you breathe easier, while other treatments reduce the swelling and inflammation in your airways, and some medicines help prevent asthma symptoms. It's important to follow your healthcare provider's advice about your treatment and take your medicines as directed. Other medicines may be needed if your asthma starts to get worse. If your asthma is getting worse, visit your doctor, discuss what is new in asthma treatment and start treatment as soon as your symptoms begin.
Types of Medicines Usually Prescribed for Asthma
Bronchodilators relax the muscles around the airways (breathing tubes). When the airways are more open, it is easier to breathe. There are two general types of bronchodilators, and you may be prescribed one or both types:
- Short-Acting bronchodilators work quickly after you take them so that you feel relief from symptoms quickly.
- Long-Acting bronchodilators have effects that last a long time. They should not be used for quick relief. These medications are only recommended for use when combined with an anti-inflammatory asthma medicine (see below).
Anti-inflammatory medicines reduce the swelling and mucus production inside the airways. When that inflammation is reduced, it is easier to breathe. These medicines also are called corticosteroids or steroids. Most often, these are inhaled medications and it is important to rinse out your mouth with water immediately after using them to avoid getting thrush, a yeast infection in your throat.
Some corticosteroids come in pill form and usually are used for short periods of time in special circumstances, such as when your symptoms are getting worse.
There are a few medicines that combine inhaled bronchodilators and inhaled corticosteroids.
Anticholinergics (an-ti-cho-lin-er-gics) are a class of medicines that prevent muscle bands from tightening around the airways. The medicine can be inhaled using a metered-dose inhaler or nebulized from a solution. This type of medicine is typically used in combination with an inhaled corticosteroid and should be taken daily for long-term control. They are often added on to treatment to relieve cough, mucus production, wheeze or chest tightness.
Severe Asthma Treatments
For more severe forms of asthma that are not well-controlled with standard therapy, there are several approved medicines now available. Research has helped to identify different types of airway inflammation in asthma such as allergic (atopic) and eosinophilic asthma (eosinophils are a type of white blood cell associated with allergies). Studies have found targeted therapies for each of these subgroups (or phenotypes) in asthma. These medicines are administered in your doctor’s office once a month by either a shot or IV.
People with asthma can have flare-ups that may be caused by bacterial or viral infections. Your doctor may want you to have a prescription for an antibiotic or an anti-viral that you keep on hand. You will be instructed to have this prescription filled if you have an infection coming on.
It is important to take an antibiotic exactly as prescribed and to take it all, even if you start to feel better before it is all used up. If you do not take it all, the infection may come back and be even stronger and harder to treat.
How to Get the Most out of Your Asthma Medicine
Asthma medicines do not cure asthma, but they can help improve your symptoms. The most important thing is to take your medicine(s) exactly as your healthcare provider has instructed you to take them. That means, taking the right medicine at the right time and with the proper technique!
When using metered-dose inhalers, which can be either a quick-relief medicine or a long-term control medicine, the American Lung Association suggests that you use a valved holding chamber to get the most of your medicines. Haven't heard of this device? Learn more about valved holding chambers and spacers.
Set up a system that will work best for you and the people who help care for you:
- Make a medicine schedule showing what you take and when
- Ask a friend or family member to help you organize your "system"
- Connect taking your medicine with your routine habits, such as before or after certain meals or when you brush your teeth in the morning or evening
- Set an alarm to ring
- Use a weekly pill box that has sections for each day and different times of the day
If you are having asthma symptoms, are not sure if you are taking your medicine correctly, or if you are experiencing bothersome side effects, talk to your healthcare provider or another member of your healthcare team. They can help make sure you understand the correct way to take the medicines, or they may want to adjust the medicines you are taking. Also, if you are denied a medicine because it is not covered by your health insurance, be sure to talk to your doctor. Sometimes they can help you get the medicines approved or put you on a different medicine that is covered by your insurance.
Asthma Patient Resources and Videos
Watch videos about using asthma medication and get downloads to help you manage your asthma.
Asthma Medicine Schedule [PDF]Download
Valved Holding Chambers and SpacersLearn more
Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel. Last reviewed May 18, 2018.
Page Last Updated: February 28, 2019