How do medications help control asthma?

Maintenance medications for asthma are very important and need to be taken every day to help protect the lungs. In this video, I will explain how this will help control symptoms so kids can aren't slowed down by asthma.

Doctors prescribe long-term-control medications to help prevent asthma symptoms. Regularly using these medications also helps preserve lung function. Several classes of long-term-control medications are available.

  • Corticosteroids decrease inflammation in the airways, reducing the frequency and severity of asthma symptoms. Most people with asthma take inhaled corticosteroids, which are delivered with a metered-dose inhaler (MDI). Inhaled corticosteroids are considered much safer than oral steroids because they go directly into the lungs.
  • Long-acting beta agonists (LABAs) are used to relax muscles in your airways, which helps keep them open. LABAs should only be prescribed along with other long-term-control medications because using them alone could potentially make your symptoms worse.
  • Leukotriene modifiers interfere with reactions in the body that cause asthma symptoms. These medications reduce swelling in the lungs and reduce airway tightening. They also help prevent mucus buildup. Generally, these medications are very safe, but rarely they can cause mood and behavior changes in some people.
  • Other medications that are used less frequently for asthma include cromolyn, an inhaled medication that helps prevent inflammation and theophylline, an oral medication that relaxes and opens airways.

Even with long-term-control medication, asthma flare-ups may occur from time to time. So, it's important to have a quick-relief medication on hand as well. Short-acting beta agonists (SABAs) are quick-relief medications that treat active symptoms. These inhaled medications help relax and open airways.

Asthma medications reduce swelling and mucus production in the airways. They also relax the muscle bands that tighten around the airways, making breathing easier.

Medications treat asthma in different ways. Some medicines, such as anti-inflammatories, bronchodilators and leukotriene modifiers, are taken long term to prevent asthma attacks. These drugs can limit the body's response to allergens, lessen the severity of attacks caused by exercise, or reduce and limit swelling in airways.

Other drugs are used during an asthma attack. These fast-acting medications are called "rescue" treatments because they work quickly to open the airways. They may be taken orally or inhaled.

For allergy-triggered asthma, you may take medicine that blocks the allergic reaction to triggers or you may receive immunotherapy to lower your sensitivity to triggers.

Asthma medicines come in two types: quick-relief and long-term control. Quick-relief medicines control the symptoms of an asthma attack. If you need to use your quick-relief medicines more and more, visit your doctor to see if you need a different medicine. Long-term control medicines help you have fewer and milder attacks, but they don’t help you while you are having an asthma attack.

Asthma medicines can have side effects, but most side effects are mild and soon go away. Ask your doctor about the side effects of your medicines.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

One of the more common categories of medications are bronchodilators, which are inhaled medications that relax the muscles in your airway so the airways becomes larger, making room for more air to pass through-it's kind of like a new filter or cleaner for your exhaust line.

Another common prescription is the category of inhaled steroids. Steroids are the librarians of the respiratory system; they prevent symptoms from occurring by telling your airways to be quiet by reducing the inflammation in the area, and that can prevent the aging that inflammation causes (that's why it's important to take your medication as prescribed-you may feel well without drugs, but if you avoid the chronic inflammation, you avoid the aging of lung tissue associated with the inflammation as well).

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Antihistamines, which are very effective in treating allergic nasal and sinus congestion, are still largely avoided when a child is asthmatic because they tend to dry out mucous membranes.

Doctors will tell their patients that anything that might dry out the lungs is bad for their asthma. Current research tells us something else: that histamine accounts for approximately half the symptoms characteristic of upper-airway disease. Contrary to the popular wisdom about dryness in the lungs, by limiting the allergic reaction in the upper airways, the antihistamines more than counter any drying effects by allowing the nose, nature's humidifier, to work the way it's supposed to.

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Long and short-acting asthma medications help control symptoms by lowering inflammation and decreasing constriction in the lungs. Watch family medicine physician Jennifer Caudle, DO, explain different types of asthma medications and how they work.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.