Asthma Medications

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 20, 2024
6 min read

Asthma medication plays a key role in how well you control your condition. There are two main types of treatment, each geared toward a specific goal.

  • Controller medications are the most important because they prevent asthma attacks. When you use these drugs, your airways are less inflamed and less likely to react to triggers.
  • Quick-relief medications -- also called rescue medications -- relax the muscles around your airway. If you have to use a rescue medication more than twice a week, your asthma isn’t well-controlled. But people who have exercise-induced asthma may use a quick-acting medication called a beta-agonist before a workout.

The right medication should allow you to live an active and normal life. If your asthma symptoms aren’t controlled, ask your doctor to help you find a different treatment that works better.

Some of these drugs should be taken daily to get your asthma under control and keep it that way. Others are taken on an as-needed basis to make an asthma attack less severe.

The most effective ones stop airway inflammation. Your doctor may suggest you combine an inhaled corticosteroid, an anti-inflammatory drug, with one or more other drugs such as:

  • Long-acting beta-agonists. A beta-agonist is a type of drug called a bronchodilator, which opens your airways.
  • Long-acting anticholinergics. Anticholinergics relax and enlarge (dilate) the airways in the lungs, making breathing easier.
  • Leukotriene modifiers. These drugs block chemicals that cause inflammation.
  • Mast cell stabilizers. Mast cell stabilizers curb the release of chemicals that cause inflammation.
  • Theophylline. Theophylline is a bronchodilator used as an add-on medication for symptoms that are not responding to other medications.
  • Immunomodulator. This is a shot you get if you have moderate-to-severe asthma related to allergies or other inflammation caused by the immune system that doesn’t respond to certain drugs.

These medications provide fast relief of asthma attack symptoms like cough, chest tightness, and wheezing. They include:

  • Short-acting beta-agonists (bronchodilators)
  • Anticholinergics. Bronchodilators that can be paired with, or used instead of, short-acting beta-agonists
  • Systemic corticosteroids. Anti-inflammatory drugs that get symptoms under control

There are a few ways to take asthma medications. Some are inhaled, using a metered dose inhaler, dry powder inhaler, or a nebulizer (which changes medication from a liquid to a mist). Others are taken by mouth, either in pill or liquid form. They can also be given by injection.

Some asthma drugs can be taken together. And some inhalers mix two different medications to get the drugs to your airways quicker.

Over-the-counter medications for asthma are generally not recommended. You should talk to a doctor about your asthma symptoms and follow their treatment guidelines. OTC medications are not long-term treatments and shouldn’t be relied upon daily to control your asthma. People with high blood pressure, diabetes, thyroid disease, or heart disease should avoid them.

Children who get allergy shots are less likely to get asthma, recent studies show, but there are asthma shots specifically for children and adults. Since allergies are an asthma trigger, it makes sense that if you control them, you’ll have fewer asthma attacks.

Ask your doctor if allergy shots might work for you.

Asthma can't be cured. How often you need to take your medications depends on how severe your condition is and how frequently you have symptoms. For example, if you only have trouble when you exercise, you may only need to use an inhaler before a workout. But most people with asthma need daily treatment.

Your medications are the foundation of good asthma control. Learn all you can about them. Know what treatments are included in your asthma action plan, when these drugs should be taken, their expected results, and what to do when you don’t get the results you want.

Keep these general guidelines in mind, too.

  • Never run out of asthma medication. Call your pharmacy or doctor's office at least 48 hours before you run out. Store your pharmacy phone number, prescription numbers, and drug names and doses in the notes app on your phone so you can easily call for refills.
  • Make sure you understand and can follow your asthma treatment plan.
  • Wash your hands before you take asthma drugs.
  • Take your time. Double-check the name and dosage of all medications before you use them.
  • Store asthma drugs according to their instructions.
  • Check liquid medications often. If they have changed color or formed crystals, throw them away and get new ones.
  • Tell your doctor about any other medications you take. Some drugs don’t work well when you take them together. Most asthma medications are safe, but some do cause side effects. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to describe them and report anything unusual or severe.

If you have asthma, you need to be very careful with over-the-counter pain medicines. Remember: No drug is risk-free. Here are some tips from the experts for using these medicines safely.

  • Avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) if possible. If you have asthma, try to stay away from NSAIDs -- aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and ketoprofen, for example. Even if you have never had a problem with them before, it's possible to develop one later in life.
  • If you are at high risk, do not use an NSAID. If you have had a bad reaction to one of these drugs -- aspirin, ibuprofen, ketoprofen, or naproxen sodium -- you're likely to have a similar reaction to the others. People who have sinus problems or nasal polyps as well as asthma are at much higher risk of having a dangerous reaction.
  • Watch for symptoms. If you take an NSAID and your asthma symptoms get worse -- or if you develop hives or facial swelling -- get medical help right away.
  • Use as directed. Follow dosage directions carefully. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about how long to take your medication.
  • Avoid alcohol. Most over-the-counter pain relievers do not mix with alcohol. And alcohol can be a trigger for asthma symptoms. 
  • Read the package insert. When you buy a bottle of over-the-counter pain reliever, it's likely you'll throw out the printed insert along with the empty box. But you really should get in the habit of reading it. Find out what side effects you should look for. Look at the list of possible drug interactions.
  • Read the ingredients of all medicines. Painkillers such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen can show up in the most unlikely places. For instance, many over-the-counter medicines for colds or even heartburn also contain some amount of a pain reliever. Make sure you know what you're getting.
  • Tell your doctor about all medicines, herbs, and supplements that you use. Interactions are a real danger. So your health care provider needs to know about all the medicines you take before you're prescribed a new medicine. Don't forget to mention over-the-counter medicines, herbal remedies, and vitamins.