How Do Asthma Medicines Work?

People with asthma have what is called a chronic (pronounced: krah-nik), or long-lasting, problem with their airways. Everyday stuff, like animal dander or cigarette smoke, can trigger a flare-up. And a flare-up makes it hard to breathe because the airways can get swollen and clogged with mucus. The muscles around the airways can tighten up, too. Less air is able to get in and out of the lungs.

Fortunately, medicine can help. The two different types of medicines used to treat asthma are rescue medications and controller medications:

1. Rescue Medications

These immediately loosen the muscles around the airways, which opens up the airways and makes it easier to breathe. Rescue medications are usually inhaled directly into the lungs where they relieve wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath, often within minutes. The most common rescue medication is called a quick-acting bronchodilator (pronounced: brahn-ko-dye-lay-tur).

2. Controller Medications

These decrease airway swelling and mucus, and work over a long period of time to help heal the airways and prevent asthma symptoms. They may be inhaled or taken as a pill or liquid. They're important because if taken regularly, they'll decrease the number of flare-ups you have.

The most common controller medications are called inhaled corticosteroids (pronounced: kor-tih-ko-stair-oyds). These are not the same thing as performance-enhancing steroids used by athletes — they only work in your lungs. They're safe and they're a proven form of treatment for asthma.

Different Medicines Have Different Benefits

Rescue medications are important during a flare-up because they help someone breathe more easily right away. That means anyone who has asthma and has been prescribed rescue medications should always have them along — at school, on the basketball court, at the mall, and even on vacation.

But the effect of rescue medications wears off quickly. And rescue medications don't do anything to help prevent a flare-up from happening in the first place. That's where controller medications come in. These medicines may not seem to be doing anything — someone with asthma might not feel anything at all when taking them. But that doesn't mean they aren't working to keep asthma flare-ups from happening.

In fact, as their name suggests, controller medications are important for controlling asthma on a regular basis. Talk with your doctor about how often you use your rescue medicines. If it's too much, your doctor might also prescribe controller medication for you.

Some people with mild asthma use only rescue medications; others with more severe asthma have to take controller medications every day in addition to using rescue medications when they have symptoms.

If you have asthma, your doctor will decide what type of medication you need and how often you need to take it.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: August 2011
Originally reviewed by: Nicole Green, MD

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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