Asthma Chapter 10

Treat Yourself Right


Asthma Medications

Drug therapy for asthma is based on two types of medications: quick-relief medications that rapidly open the airways (bronchodilators), and long-term (maintenance) medications that seek to control inflammation, reduce the number and severity of asthma attacks, and prevent airway remodeling. READ MORE

When you have asthma, it’s important to treat for the long run as well as the short term. If you’re only treating occasional attacks with quick-acting relief medications, you could be letting inflammation in your airways get worse. Uncontrolled inflammation can lead to permanent narrowing of your airways, called airway remodeling.

However, if you have only mild asthma—that is, if your attacks are infrequent—you might not need maintenance medications. You may be able to use just quick-relief medications on an as-needed basis. LESS


Quick-Relief Medications (Bronchodilators)

Quick-relief medications, also called bronchodilators or rescue drugs, help to rapidly widen and relax your airways to relieve symptoms in mild and moderate asthma attacks. They can also be used before you exercise to help prevent exercise-induced asthma attacks. READ MORE

The drugs most often used as bronchodilators are short-acting beta-adrenergic agonists (beta2-agonists). They last for 2-3 hours. In special circumstances, oral (taken by mouth) corticosteroids, anticholinergic drugs, or methylxanthines may be used.

If you find you are using quick-relief medications two or more times a week to control your asthma symptoms, you should let your doctor know. Your daily dose of drugs may need to be changed to better control your asthma. LESS


Long-Term (Maintenance) Medication

Long-term, or maintenance, drugs for asthma work by controlling inflammation in your airways. They are used to prevent attacks or make them less frequent and less severe. They are not used to treat attacks: that is the job of your quick-relief medication. Maintenance medication is taken even when you feel well and have no symptoms of asthma. READ MORE

Inhaled corticosteroids are the main form of maintenance therapy. Sometimes long-acting beta2-agonists are used together with inhaled corticosteroids. Other anti-inflammatory drugs used together with corticosteroids include leukotriene antagonists and mast cell stabilizers. LESS


Knowing the Difference

Unfortunately, many people who suffer from asthma don’t understand the difference between quick-relief medications and maintenance medications. Quick-relief medications treat only the symptoms of asthma. They don’t help to reduce the underlying inflammation that causes the disease. For long-term control, and to prevent worsening of the disease and airway remodeling, maintenance medication is necessary.


How Asthma Drugs Are Taken

Most asthma drugs are taken using handheld inhalers. There are two types of inhalers: metered-dose inhalers and dry powder inhalers.

  • Metered-dose inhalers (MDIs) are the standard devices used to deliver asthma medications. They useful because they can deliver precise doses directly into the lungs. However, they may still contain propellant after the medication is finished. Unless the person has been keeping careful track of the number of doses they’ve taken, they may continue to use the MDI after the medication has been used up.

    Another problem with MDIs is that they are not very easy to use. You need to have training to understand how to use them properly. Many people hold them too close to, or even inside of, their mouths. A spacer (a short tube attached to the mouthpiece) can help with this.

  • Dry powder inhalers (DPIs) deliver powdered forms of medications into the lungs. Many people find them easier to use than MDIs. Humidity and temperature extremes harm the performance of these inhalers. DPIs may cause tooth erosion, so it’s necessary to rinse your mouth after using one.

Other Ways of Taking Asthma Medications

Nebulizers are devices used to give asthma drugs in a hospital, or when the person with asthma can’t use an inhaler. Nebulizers emit medications in a fine spray that the individual with asthma breathes in. Medications may also be given orally or intravenously. LESS

Photo credit of Ebers Papyrus from National Library of Medicine
Copyright 2005 Eric Gaba

The material on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Consult a licensed medical professional for the diagnosis and treatment of all medical conditions and before starting a new diet or exercise program. If you have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.