Prevention and long-term control are key to stopping asthma attacks before they start. Treatment usually involves learning to recognize your triggers, taking steps to avoid triggers and tracking your breathing to make sure your medications are keeping symptoms under control. In case of an asthma flare-up, you may need to use a quick-relief inhaler.
The right medications for you depend on a number of things — your age, symptoms, asthma triggers and what works best to keep your asthma under control.
Preventive, long-term control medications reduce the swelling (inflammation) in your airways that leads to symptoms. Quick-relief inhalers (bronchodilators) quickly open swollen airways that are limiting breathing. In some cases, allergy medications are necessary.
Long-term asthma control medications, generally taken daily, are the cornerstone of asthma treatment. These medications keep asthma under control on a day-to-day basis and make it less likely you'll have an asthma attack. Types of long-term control medications include:
Inhaled corticosteroids. These medications include fluticasone propionate (Flovent HFA, Flovent Diskus, Xhance), budesonide (Pulmicort Flexhaler, Pulmicort Respules, Rhinocort), ciclesonide (Alvesco), beclomethasone (Qvar Redihaler), mometasone (Asmanex HFA, Asmanex Twisthaler) and fluticasone furoate (Arnuity Ellipta).
You may need to use these medications for several days to weeks before they reach their maximum benefit. Unlike oral corticosteroids, inhaled corticosteroids have a relatively low risk of serious side effects.
Leukotriene modifiers. These oral medications — including montelukast (Singulair), zafirlukast (Accolate) and zileuton (Zyflo) — help relieve asthma symptoms.
Montelukast has been linked to psychological reactions, such as agitation, aggression, hallucinations, depression and suicidal thinking. Seek medical advice right away if you experience any of these reactions.
- Combination inhalers. These medications — such as fluticasone-salmeterol (Advair HFA, Airduo Digihaler, others), budesonide-formoterol (Symbicort), formoterol-mometasone (Dulera) and fluticasone furoate-vilanterol (Breo Ellipta) — contain a long-acting beta agonist along with a corticosteroid.
- Theophylline. Theophylline (Theo-24, Elixophyllin, Theochron) is a daily pill that helps keep the airways open by relaxing the muscles around the airways. It's not used as often as other asthma medications and requires regular blood tests.
Quick-relief (rescue) medications are used as needed for rapid, short-term symptom relief during an asthma attack. They may also be used before exercise if your doctor recommends it. Types of quick-relief medications include:
Short-acting beta agonists. These inhaled, quick-relief bronchodilators act within minutes to rapidly ease symptoms during an asthma attack. They include albuterol (ProAir HFA, Ventolin HFA, others) and levalbuterol (Xopenex, Xopenex HFA).
Short-acting beta agonists can be taken using a portable, hand-held inhaler or a nebulizer, a machine that converts asthma medications to a fine mist. They're inhaled through a face mask or mouthpiece.
- Anticholinergic agents. Like other bronchodilators, ipratropium (Atrovent HFA) and tiotropium (Spiriva, Spiriva Respimat) act quickly to immediately relax your airways, making it easier to breathe. They're mostly used for emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but can be used to treat asthma.
- Oral and intravenous corticosteroids. These medications — which include prednisone (Prednisone Intensol, Rayos) and methylprednisolone (Medrol, Depo-Medrol, Solu-Medrol) — relieve airway inflammation caused by severe asthma. They can cause serious side effects when used long term, so these drugs are used only on a short-term basis to treat severe asthma symptoms.
If you have an asthma flare-up, a quick-relief inhaler can ease your symptoms right away. But you shouldn't need to use your quick-relief inhaler very often if your long-term control medications are working properly.
Keep a record of how many puffs you use each week. If you need to use your quick-relief inhaler more often than your doctor recommends, see your doctor. You probably need to adjust your long-term control medication.
Allergy medications may help if your asthma is triggered or worsened by allergies. These include:
- Allergy shots (immunotherapy). Over time, allergy shots gradually reduce your immune system reaction to specific allergens. You generally receive shots once a week for a few months, then once a month for a period of three to five years.
- Biologics. These medications — which include omalizumab (Xolair), mepolizumab (Nucala), dupilumab (Dupixent), reslizumab (Cinqair) and benralizumab (Fasenra) — are specifically for people who have severe asthma.
This treatment is used for severe asthma that doesn't improve with inhaled corticosteroids or other long-term asthma medications. It isn't widely available nor right for everyone.
During bronchial thermoplasty, your doctor heats the insides of the airways in the lungs with an electrode. The heat reduces the smooth muscle inside the airways. This limits the ability of the airways to tighten, making breathing easier and possibly reducing asthma attacks. The therapy is generally done over three outpatient visits.
Treat by severity for better control: A stepwise approach
Your treatment should be flexible and based on changes in your symptoms. Your doctor should ask about your symptoms at each visit. Based on your signs and symptoms, your doctor can adjust your treatment accordingly.
For example, if your asthma is well controlled, your doctor may prescribe less medication. If your asthma isn't well controlled or is getting worse, your doctor may increase your medication and recommend more-frequent visits.
Asthma action plan
Work with your doctor to create an asthma action plan that outlines in writing when to take certain medications or when to increase or decrease the dose of your medications based on your symptoms. Also include a list of your triggers and the steps you need to take to avoid them.
Your doctor may also recommend tracking your asthma symptoms or using a peak flow meter on a regular basis to monitor how well your treatment is controlling your asthma.