How do medications help control asthma?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

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.

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.

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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.