How do asthma medications work?

Woman using an asthma inhaler indoors. Using medication during an asthma attack.

More than 10% of adult Tennesseans have asthma. You’ve probably seen people having trouble breathing and then, after using an inhaler, breathe normally. How do asthma medications work?

To find out, WellTuned spoke with Dr. Jamiyla Bracey, a pharmacist with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

Asthma medications

Dr. Bracey: Asthma is a chronic condition of the lungs that causes trouble breathing, wheezing, coughing and tightness in the chest. Medication can help you feel better and manage your asthma symptoms. Most people with asthma use a combination of quick-relief or rescue medications and long term or control medications. Here’s how they work:

Quick-relief asthma medications

When experiencing an asthma attack, you’ll typically take one of a variety of short-acting bronchodilators. They help relax the muscles around your airways to make it easier to breathe normally again. Short-acting medications, like albuterol or ipratropium, are often taken through an inhaler or a nebulizer. One inhaled treatment, Combivent, even incorporates both albuterol and ipratropium.

Short-acting medications usually start working within 5-15 minutes, but the effects only last 4-6 hours. They also have possible side effects, including increased heart rate, shaky feelings and upset stomach.

Long-term/control asthma medications

Doctors often prescribe long-term medications to help slow down the progression of your asthma. These medications can also prevent symptoms from occurring.

Long-term medications include:

  • Long-acting beta agonist (LABA)
  • Leukotriene modifier (or leukotriene receptor agonist)
  • Long-acting muscarinic antagonist (LAMA)
  • Theophylline
  • Inhaled corticosteroid
  • Combination treatments that include two or three medications

While some long-acting medications may be inhaled, they don’t provide immediate relief. You can think of these medications as prevention strategies. You’re trying to stay ahead of your disease and prevent the need to use your rescue inhaler. For that reason, consistency is key with control medications.

For example, your doctor might prescribe a daily dose of Singulair (montelukast). This drug helps block the action of the chemical that your body releases when it encounters an allergen. It can be effective over the long term, but you’ll need to take it as prescribed.

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Other asthma medications

Dr. Bracey: Everyone is different, so medication needs will vary. Depending on the type and severity of asthma, you might need to also use other medications. These may include:

  • Allergy-induced asthma medications
  • Antibiotics to treat bacterial infections that might cause asthma flare-ups
  • Biologics, which may be used to help manage severe asthma symptoms

Follow your asthma treatment plan for best results

Dr. Bracey: Everyone with asthma should have an asthma treatment plan, or asthma action plan. Your doctor can help you create a plan that addresses your personal situation. Your plan should also include information about when you should seek emergency help.

It’s important to follow your asthma treatment plan to get the best results. Take your control medications as prescribed. Let your doctor know if you’re reaching for your quick-acting medication more than a couple of times each week. If so, you may need to alter your treatment plan.

“Staying on track with your asthma treatment plan will help you maintain the best possible quality of life,” says Dr. Bracey.

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Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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