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How Do Asthma Medicines Work?

How Does Asthma Affect the Airways?

People with asthma have trouble breathing. Everyday stuff, like animal dander or cigarette smoke, can make it worse and trigger a flare-up. A flare-up makes it hard for air to get in and out of the lungs. Airways fill with mucus and the muscles around the airways can tighten up too.

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

What Is Long-Term Control Medicine?

Long-term control medicine decreases overall airway swelling and mucus. This medicine works 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 should be taken 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 — they work only in your lungs. Corticosteroids are a safe and proven treatment for asthma.

What Is Quick-Relief Medicine?

Quick-relief 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 to relieve wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath, often within minutes. The most common quick-relief medication is a quick-acting bronchodilator (pronounced: brahn-ko-dye-LAY-tur).

How Do These Medicines Work Together?

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. 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. You might not notice long-term control medicine doing anything, but it's 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 quick-relief medicine too often, he or she 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: Aledie A. Navas, MD
Date Reviewed: Aug 10, 2018

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