Asthma medications


to stay in control

People with asthma rely on 3 kinds of medications to help them breathe more easily. Learn about the different types, so you and your doctor can choose the right ones for you.

Quick-relief medications

Inhaled quick-relief medicines provide short-term relief from asthma symptoms by relaxing and opening your airways. Always keep your quick-relief inhaler handy, because you never know when you might need to use it.

Quick-relief medicine can’t keep symptoms from coming back — only long term-control medicines can do that.

Contact your doctor right away if you’re using your quick-relief medication too often. How often is too often?  For most people, using quick-relief medication more than twice-a-week to relieve asthma symptoms is too often.

Long-term control medications

Asthma is different for different people, so you and your doctor need to determine the best way to treat your asthma. Many people need to take medication daily to prevent coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and asthma flare-ups. This type of medicine, called asthma controller medication, needs to be taken regularly — even when you feel well — to keep asthma under control.

If you have a flare-up, don’t increase the dose of your asthma controller medication unless you’re advised to do so by your doctor.

Burst medications

Burst medications, like prednisone, are anti-inflammatory medications that are usually taken orally as a pill or liquid to reduce the swelling inside your airways and help reverse severe asthma flare-ups.Pharmacist explains medication to a man It can take several hours for burst medications to start working and days for them to work fully. It’s important to take them exactly as prescribed and continue taking your long-term control and quick-relief medications.

When burst medications are given in the Emergency Department, they can be injected or fed through an IV drip.

You can avoid having to take burst medications by keeping your asthma under control with your long-term control medications.

Take your medications safely

  • Use the right medication. Don’t use nonprescription inhalers, like Primatene Mist, or cough syrup to treat asthma symptoms.
  • Avoid drug interactions. Always tell your doctor if you’d like to take or are taking any dietary supplements, herbal products, or over-the-counter medications because they may interfere with your asthma medications.
  • Ask questions. Our pharmacists can answer your questions about your medications.

How to use an inhaler

An inhaler is a tool that helps you inhale certain kinds of medicine.

  • Use a spacer with your inhaler if prescribed by your doctor to help get more medicine down to your lungs. You’ll get more from your medication and may reduce side effects.
  • Hold your breath for 10 seconds after inhaling the puff.
  • Rinse your mouth with water after using your “controller” inhaler. This helps prevent side effects, such as thrush, a yeast infection of the mouth.

Plan ahead

  • Know your dose, so you don’t run out of your controller medication. Get the number of puffs in your inhaler by looking on the box or by asking your pharmacist. Divide this number by the number of puffs you inhale each day. The result is the number of days your inhaler will last. Say your canister contains 120 puffs, and you use 4 puffs a day. Your inhaler holds enough medicine for 30 days (120 ÷ 4 = 30).  

Reviewed by: Patricia McNally, MD, November 2018