Understand Your Asthma Medication

Learn the types of asthma medicines and how they work.

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

How Asthma Medicines Work

People with asthma are often treated with a combination of quick-relief and long-term controller medicines.

Quick-Relief Medicine works quickly to relax your airways and help you breathe easier. 

  • You need to take this medicine if your asthma symptoms get worse. 
  • Be sure to start treatment as soon as your symptoms begin.

Long-Term Control Medicine reduces the swelling and inflammation in your airways and prevents symptoms 

  • You need to take these medicines every day, even when you feel well.

Types of Asthma Medicines

The following medicines are commonly used to treat asthma. It is important to follow your healthcare provider's advice about your treatment.

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.

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 (ee-oh-sin-o-fil-ik) 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. Learn more about severe asthma treatments.

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 antiviral 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.

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.

View current medication chart

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!

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

When using metered-dose inhalers, which can be either a quick-relief medicine or a long-term control medicine, use a valved holding chamber to get the most of your medicines. Haven't heard of this device? Learn about valved holding chambers and spacers.

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.

Page last updated: November 28, 2022

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