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How Do Asthma Medicines Work?

People with asthma have what is called a chronic (say: KRAH-nik) health problem. This means that it's a problem that's always there, even when they feel OK.

Everyday stuff such as exercise, pets, or cigarette smoke can make asthma symptoms worse (this is called an asthma flare-up). 

But medicine can help. Two different kinds of medicines can treat asthma: quick-relief medicines and long-term control medicines.

What Are Quick-Relief Medicines?

Quick-relief medicines (also called rescue or fast-acting medicines) can loosen the muscles around the airways. That opens up the airways and makes it easier to breathe.

Quick-relief medicines usually are inhaled (breathed) right into the lungs, where they stop wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath quickly. In other words, they give quick relief to a person who's having trouble breathing!

What Are Long-Term Control Medicines?

Long-term control medicines (also called controller or maintenance medicines) work over a long period of time by keeping the airways from getting swollen in the first place. They may be inhaled or taken as a pill or liquid.

Quick-relief medicines 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 quick-relief medicines should always have them along — at school, on the basketball court, at the mall, and even on vacation.

But quick-relief medicines don't do anything to help prevent an asthma flare-up. That's where long-term control medicines come in. These medicines might not seem to be doing anything. In fact, a kid with asthma might not feel anything at all when taking them. But these medicines are quietly doing important work to control asthma every day.

Some people with mild asthma use only quick-relief medicines when they have flare-ups. Others who have more severe asthma must take quick-relief medicines when they have breathing problems and they need to take long-term control medicines every day.

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

Reviewed by: Aledie A. Navas, MD
Date Reviewed: Aug 10, 2018

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