How Do Asthma Medicines Work?

How Do Asthma Medicines Work?

People with asthma have what is called a chronic (long-lasting) problem with their airways. Everyday stuff, like animal dander or cigarette smoke, can trigger a flare-up. 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.

Luckily, medicine can help. The two different types of medicines used to treat asthma are quick-relief and long-term control medicines:

1. Quick-Relief Medicine

This kind of medicine immediately loosens the muscles around the airways. That opens up the airways and makes it easier to breathe. Quick-relief medicines are also called "fast-acting" or "rescue" medicines. They're usually breathed straight 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. Long-Term Control Medicines

This kind of medicine decreases overall airway swelling and mucus. Long-term control medicines work over a long period of time to help heal the airways and prevent asthma symptoms. For that reason, they're sometimes also called "controller" or "maintenance" medicines. They may be inhaled or taken as a pill or liquid.

Long-term control medicines are particularly important to take regularly, even if you're feeling fine. Taken properly, they'll decrease the number of flare-ups you have.

The most common long-term control medicines are called inhaled corticosteroids (pronounced: kor-tih-ko-STAIR-oyds). Although they have "steroid" in the name, they are not the same thing as performance-enhancing steroids used by athletes — they only work in your lungs. Corticosteroids are a safe and proven treatment for asthma.

Different Medicines Have Different Benefits

Quick-relief medicines are important during a flare-up because they help you breathe more easily right away. If your doctor has prescribed quick-relief medicine you should always have it with you — at school, on the basketball court, at the mall, and even on vacation.

But quick-relief medicines wear off quickly after you take them. And they don't do anything to help prevent a flare-up from happening in the first place. That's where long-term control medicine comes in. Unlike quick-relief medicine, you might not notice long-term control medicine doing anything. But the medicine is working behind the scenes to keep you from getting asthma flare-ups.

As the name suggests, long-term control medicine is important for controlling asthma on a regular basis. If your doctor thinks you're needing rescue medicine too often, he or she doctor might also prescribe long-term control medicine.

Some people with mild asthma use only quick-relief medicines. Most people who have more severe asthma have to take long-term control medicine every day, as well as use quick-relief medicine when they have asthma symptoms. Your doctor will decide what type of medicine you need and how often you need to take it.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: February 2014

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

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Related Resources
OrganizationAmerican Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology offers up-to-date information and a find-an-allergist search tool.
OrganizationAmerican College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology The ACAAI is an organization of allergists-immunologists and health professionals dedicated to quality patient care. Contact them at: American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
85 W. Algonquin Road
Suite 550 Arlington Heights, IL 60005
(800) 842-7777
OrganizationAmerican Lung Association The mission of this group is to prevent lung disease and promote lung health. Contact the group at: American Lung Association
61 Broadway, 6th Floor
NY, NY 10006
(212) 315-8700
Web SiteAIRNow A cross-agency U.S. government website, AIRNow provides useful air quality information, including daily Air Quality Index forecasts and details on conditions in more than 300 U.S. cities.
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