There are two cornerstones of successful asthma treatment.

  • asthma medications
  • controlling your environment

Taking your medicine as directed is the best way to keep your asthma symptoms under control. Asthma medicines work simply in your body to help you feel better. The more you know about your asthma medicines and how they work, the more confident you will be in controlling your asthma.

Asthma medicines fall into two basic categories:

Long-term control medicines are used on an ongoing basis to control and prevent asthma symptoms and asthma attacks.

Quick-relief medicines are used to relieve symptoms at the time that they flare-up.

Asthma Type Determines Your Asthma Medication

Your doctor decides what type of medicine to give you based on the type of asthma you have, that is, your asthma classification. The guidelines used most often are listed below.

  • If you have intermittent asthma, you'll use only quick-relief medicine, and only when you have asthma symptoms.
  • If you have persistent asthma, your doctor will likely prescribe both long-term control and quick-relief medicines.
  • If you have exercise-induced asthma, you may take long-term control medicine. Or, you may only use quick-relief medicine five minutes to one hour before you exercise — to prevent asthma symptoms.

These are general guidelines. Only your doctor can determine your specific asthma classification and the asthma treatment for you. How much medicine you take and when to take it needs to be clearly written in your Asthma Action Plan.

Long-Term Control Asthma Medicines

There are different types of long-term control medicines. They can calm your airways and prevent asthma symptoms. Other names for long-term control medicine are:

  • Long-term preventive medicine
  • Maintenance medicine
  • Controller medicine

How Long-term Control Asthma Medicines Work

Long-term control medicines work to prevent or stop the overreactive immune system response that causes inflammation and tightening in your airways. Long-term control medicine works in your body to help prevent or control everyday symptoms of asthma by:

  • Reducing or preventing inflammation
  • Keeping airways open
  • Improving breathing ability

How Long-term Control Asthma Medicines Are Used

These medicines are taken every day on a long-term basis. Long-term control medicines work best when a certain level is maintained in your bloodstream. Forgetting to take your long-term control medicine or not taking it the correct way can cause unwanted effects. Make sure to talk with your doctor if you are not sure of when or how to take your long-term control medicine. Your medicine instructions should be written in your Asthma Action Plan.

Quick-Relief Asthma Medicines

Quick-relief medicines work rapidly to relieve symptoms during an asthma attack. They can "rescue" you and keep your asthma symptoms from getting worse. They do not affect the underlying inflammation that causes asthma symptoms. No matter how mild or severe your asthma is, your doctor will make sure that you have a quick-relief medicine available. Quick-relief medicine usually comes in a canister and is inhaled. Another name for quick-relief medicine is "rescue medicine."

How Quick-Relief Asthma Medicines Work

Quick-relief medicines work rapidly to open airways and increase airflow. They can stop your cough, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and wheezing. Your asthma symptoms should ease within 30 minutes. Your doctor will tell you what to do if your quick-relief medicine does not improve your symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe quick-relief medicine to be used just before exercise to prevent symptoms associated with exercise-induced asthma.

How Quick-Relief Asthma Medicines Are Used

Quick-relief medicine should NOT be used on a regularly scheduled basis. Quick-relief medicines ARE used when you feel your symptoms are getting worse and you are developing an asthma attack. You should feel better when you use quick-relief medicine the right way. Information about how and when to take quick-relief medicine should be written in your Asthma Action Plan, too.

Written by Karen Serrano, MD

Emergency Medicine resident at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Reviewed by Lisa V. Suffian, MD

Instructor of Clinical Pediatrics in the Division of Allergy and Pulmonary Medicine at Saint Louis Children's Hospital, Washington University School of Medicine

Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital, Saint Louis University

Board certified in Allergy and Immunology

Last updated June 2008