Apr 15, 2000 Table of Contents

Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education Web site.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Medications for Controlling Asthma

Am Fam Physician. 2000 Apr 15;61(8):2427-2428.

See related article on asthma.

What medications are used in the treatment of asthma?

Most people with asthma need two kinds of asthma medicine: one for quick relief and one for long-term control.

Everyone with asthma needs a quick-relief medicine to stop asthma attacks. Many people also need a preventive medicine, or controller, every day to protect the lungs and keep asthma attacks from starting.

Make sure you have a written treatment plan from your doctor and understand how to follow it.

How safe are preventive medicines for asthma?

Preventive medicines for asthma are safe to use every day.

You will not become addicted to preventive medicines for asthma even if you use them for many years.

Preventive medicine makes the swelling of the airways in the lungs go away.

The doctor may tell you to take preventive medicine every day if:

  • You cough, wheeze or have a tight chest more than once a week.

  • You wake up at night because of asthma.

  • You have many asthma attacks.

  • You have to use quick-relief medicine every day to stop asthma attacks.

Tell your doctor about any problems with your asthma medicines.

Your doctor can change the asthma medicine or change how much you take. There are many asthma medicines.

Go to your doctor at least 2 or 3 times a year for check-ups so he or she can see how well the asthma medicine works.

Be prepared. Always have asthma medicine

Always carry your quick-relief asthma medicine with you when you leave home. Follow the instructions in the box on the next page.

Act fast if an asthma attack starts

Know the signs that an asthma attack is starting:

  • Coughing

  • Wheezing

  • Tight chest

  • Waking up at night

Move away from the thing that started the attack.

Take a quick-relief asthma medicine.

Stay calm for 1 hour to be sure breathing gets better.

What if I do not get better?

Get emergency help from a doctor if you do not get better.

Call your doctor or seek emergency care if you see any of these asthma danger signs:

  • Your quick-relief medicine does not help for very long or it does not help at all.

  • Breathing is still fast and hard.

  • It is hard to walk or talk.

  • Lips or fingernails turn gray or blue.

  • The nose opens wide when you breathe.

  • Skin is pulled in around the ribs and neck when you breathe.

  • The heartbeat or pulse is very fast.

Be careful! Using quick-relief medicine too much or too often for asthma attacks can hurt you

Quick-relief medicine for asthma makes you feel better for a while. It may stop the attack. With some attacks, you may think you are getting better but the airways are getting more and more swollen. Then you are in danger of having a very bad asthma attack that could kill you.

If you use quick-relief medicine every day to stop asthma attacks, this means you need a preventive medicine for long-term control.

How to Use a Spray Inhaler

Remember to breathe in slowly.

  1. Take off the cap. Shake the inhaler.

  2. Stand up. Breathe out.

  3. Put the inhaler in your mouth or put it just in front of your mouth. As you start to breathe in, push down on the top of the inhaler and keep breathing in slowly.

  4. Hold your breath for 10 seconds. Breathe out.

A spacer or a holding chamber makes it easier to use a spray inhaler.

  1. Put the open end of the spacer in your mouth.

  2. Spray the asthma medicine into the spacer one time.

  3. Take a deep breath and hold it for 10 seconds.

  4. Breathe out into the spacer.

  5. Breathe in again, but do not spray the medicine again.

If a second dose is prescribed, repeat these steps.



Adapted from “What you and your family can do about asthma,” a patient information booklet published by the Global Initiative for Asthma, a joint effort of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the World Health Organization. This and other publications are available through the Internet (http://www.ginasthma.com).

This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.

Copyright © 2000 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact afpserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

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