Understanding your asthma medications

Types of medications

Asthma medications can fall into three general categories: relievers, controllers, and combination medications.

Reliever medications, sometimes referred to as rescue medications, help stop the symptoms of an asthma attack. They are used as needed and are most effective when used at the first sign of asthma symptoms, such as shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness. Reliever medications are also commonly used to help prevent asthma symptoms caused by exercise. Like your wallet and house keys, you should take your reliever medication with you everywhere you go, because you never know when you might need it.

Reliever inhalers contain a variety of fast-acting bronchodilators.

Controller medications, as the name implies, help keep your asthma under control over time by reducing inflammation and mucous in your airways. They reduce your lungs' sensitivity to potential asthma triggers. These medications are also referred to as maintenance medications. If your doctor has recommended a controller medication, you should use it as prescribed (it is usually used on a regular basis), even when you're not experiencing asthma symptoms. Proper and consistent use of your controller medication will help prevent complications caused by your asthma.

Controller medications include:

  • corticosteroids
  • leukotriene receptor antagonists
  • long-lasting bronchodilators
  • omalizumab
  • sodium chromoglycate and ketotifen

Combination medications contain two medications in a single inhaler. They are used by people who need to take both medications on a regular basis. Some combination medications for asthma, such as budesonide - formoterol (Symbicort®), contain a controller and reliever medication in a single inhaler. Some, such as fluticasone - salmeterol (Advair®), contain two controller medications. And others, such as ipratropium - fenoterol Duovent®), contain two reliever medications.

Using your medications properly

On their own, reliever medications will not control your asthma over time. Except in the mildest cases of asthma, controller medications are usually also required. Therefore, if you've been prescribed a controller medication, don't skip using it. And always use all your medications as prescribed.

Many people decide to stop taking their medications when their symptoms disappear. You should not stop taking your asthma medications without consulting your doctor. Most people with asthma always have some degree of inflammation and bronchoconstriction (narrowing) in their airways, even though they can't feel it. If you stop taking your medications completely, the cycle of inflammation and bronchoconstriction may start again and you could end up having a serious asthma attack. That's why it's better to ask your doctor for an asthma action plan that tells you how and when you can change the amount and type of medications you take.

Remember, asthma is a variable disease. The dose of medication you need to keep your asthma under control may change from time to time.

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