Asthma Medications

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Since the avoidance of asthma triggers is not always easy, you may have to take an asthma drug to help manage your symptoms. A variety of factors goes into determining the correct medication for you, including your age, response to medications, symptoms, and asthma triggers.

There are two approaches to treating asthma: quick-relief and long-term control medications. These medications act as either bronchodilators, which relax and open the lungs, or anti-inflammatories that reduce the amount of mucus in the air tubes, making it easier to breathe. There are various ways to administer these, such as metered dose inhalers and nebulizers, which use aerosol canisters to deliver medicine. Other options include dry powder inhalers, injections and pills.

Below are some of the medications a doctor may consider when treating an asthma patient.

Quick-Relief Medications (Rescue)

Quick relief medications provide rapid reprieve from asthma flare-ups. Also, physicians may recommend their use before exercise. They include:

Short–Acting Beta Agonists (SABAs)

These rescue drugs, bronchodilators, help relax airways rapidly, making it easier to breathe. They work within 20 minutes of inhalation and relief often lasts over four hours. The drugs also prevent exercise-induced asthma flare-ups. Examples of SABAs include:

  • Albuterol
  • Albuterol and Ipratropium Bromide combination
  • Metaproterenol
  • Levalbuterol
  • Pirbuterol
  • Anticholinergics

These drugs act as bronchodilators and asthma sufferers occasionally use them with SABAs to treat acute asthma symptoms. They work by preventing the muscles in the airways from contracting. An anticholinergic—Atrovent®, for example—is also regularly used for the treatment of chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Oral and Intravenous Corticosteroids

When used systematically, these medications relieve moderate and severe asthma symptoms. Corticosteroids are used mostly with other drugs to treat long-term, hard to control asthma. Occasionally, asthma patients take high doses of these drugs over a few days, called a steroid burst. This is sometimes necessary to reduce the likelihood of a severe attack. However, long-term usage of these drugs can lead to serious side effects such as peptic ulcers, acne, weight gain, bone loss, glucose intolerance, and stomach upsets. Examples of corticosteroids include:

  • Prednisone
  • Prednisolone

Long-Term Control Medications

Long-term control medications, the basis of asthma treatment, are taken daily. A bronchodilator keeps the airways open, and anti-inflammatory drugs reduce inflammation. These drugs include:

Inhaled Corticosteroids

Inhaled corticosteroids are the most effective anti-inflammatory medicines and, therefore, the most commonly prescribed long-term asthma control drugs. Their use leads to fewer asthma flare-ups and reduces the need for hospitalization. While corticosteroids prevent symptoms, they do not relieve them. For best results, asthmatics should take corticosteroids on a daily basis. They have little or no side effects. Examples of corticosteroids include:

  • Triamcinolone
  • Fluticasone
  • Mometasone
  • Beclomethasone
  • Budesonide

Long-Acting Beta Agonists (LABAs)

LABAs are used to control asthma by opening up narrow airways. However, use of LABAs without anti-inflammatory medications (inhaled corticosteroids), has been linked to an increased risk of an acute asthma attack. They include:

  • Formoterol
  • Salmeterol
  • Combination drugs include: formoterol and budesonide and salmeterol and fluticasone

Leukotriene Modifiers

Leukotrienes occur naturally in our bodies, and they cause constriction of airway muscles and massive production of mucus. Leukotriene modifiers inhibit the action of these chemicals. These medications are an alternative drug for patients with mild but persistent asthma and doctors recommend using them as part of a combined therapy with inhaled corticosteroids. Leukotriene modifier drugs include:

  • Montelukast
  • Zafirlukast
  • Zileuton


Theophylline, only available in oral form, is a long-term medication. Taken daily, it prevents asthma episodes by relaxing the muscles around the airways.

Asthma sufferers have more options than ever before. In addition to this wide array of medications, there are a number of asthma remedies that may calm your symptoms. But since choosing the wrong medication or remedy can do more harm than good, remember the best course of action for treating asthma is determined in consultation with your physician. You may also want to ask your doctor about clinical trials, which may give you access to the newest treatments under development. Learn more about living with asthma, and visit our “Did You Know?” section. Atrovent® is a registered trademark of Boehringer Ingelheim.

Atrovent® is a registered trademark of Boehringer Ingelheim.