Asthma Medications

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on August 25, 2021

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 medicationsare 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 med 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.

Long-Term Control Medications

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 reduce the severity of an asthma attack.

The most effective ones stop airway inflammation. Your doctor may suggest you combine an inhaled corticosteroid, an anti-inflammatory drug with 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 (bronchodilators).
    • Tiotropium bromide (Spiriva Respimat) is an anticholinergic available for anyone ages 6 and older. This medicine should be used in addition to your regular maintenance medication.
  • Leukotriene modifiers block chemicals that cause inflammation.
  • Mast cell stabilizers curb the release of chemicals that cause inflammation.
  • Theophylline is a bronchodilator used as an add-on medication for symptoms that are not responding to other medications.
  • An immunomodulator is an injection given 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.
    • Reslizumab (Cinqair) is an immunomodulator maintenance medication. It is used along with your regular asthma medicines. This medicine is given every 4 weeks as an intravenous injection over a period of about an hour. This drug works by reducing the number of a specific type of white blood cells, called eosinophils, that play a role in causing asthma symptoms. It can reduce severe asthma attacks.
    • Mepolizumab (Nucala) targets the levels of blood eosinophils. It is given as an injection every 4 weeks and is used as a maintenance therapy medication.
    • Omalizumab (Xolair) is an antibody that blocks immunoglobulin E (IgE) and is used as an asthma maintenance medication. This prevents an allergen from triggering an asthma attack. This drug is given as an injection. To receive this medicine, a person has to have an elevated IgE level and have known allergies. The allergies need to be confirmed by either blood or skin test.
    • Tezepelumab-ekko (Tezspire) injection is used as an add-on maintenance treatment of adult and pediatric patients aged 12 years and older. It targets a molecule that causes inflammation in the airways and is taken with other asthma medication.

Quick-Relief Asthma Drugs

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

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

Inhalers, Nebulizers, and Pills as Asthma Medicine

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.

Are There Over-the-Counter Asthma Drugs?

Over-the-counter medications for asthma are generally discouraged. 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.

Can Allergy Shots Treat My Asthma?

Children who get allergy shots are less likely to get asthma, recent studies show, but there are asthma shots specifically for adolescents 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.

How Often Will I Have to Take Asthma Drugs?

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.

Asthma Medication Guidelines

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.

Show Sources


American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: "AAAAI Allergy & Asthma Medication Guide." 

American Academy of Family Physicians: Family Doctor: "Asthma: Learning to Control Your Symptoms." 

American Lung Association: "Asthma Medicines."

FDA News Release. “FDA approves Cinqair to treat severe asthma.”

Medline Plus: "Asthma." 

Boehringer Ingelheim: "US FDA Expands Approval of Tiotropium Respimat® for Maintenance Treatment of Asthma in Children."

FDA. Prescribing Information: Spiriva Respimat.

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