Mar 15, 2001 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 But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date.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.

Patient Information Collection

Informationfrom Your Family Doctor

Asthma Medications

Am Fam Physician. 2001 Mar 15;63(6):1212-1213.

What medications are used to treat 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 medicine makes the swelling of the airways in the lungs go away. 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.

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

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

  2. You wake up at night because of asthma.

  3. You have many asthma attacks.

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

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:

  1. Coughing

  2. Wheezing

  3. Tight chest

  4. Waking up at night

If you know what started the attack, move away from it. Use your quick-relief asthma medicine. Stay calm for one hour to be sure your breathing gets better.

What if I don’t get better?

Get emergency help from your doctor if you do not get better. Call your doctor or seek emergency care if you have any of these asthma danger signs:

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

  2. Breathing is still fast and hard.

  3. It is hard to walk or talk.

  4. Your lips or fingernails turn gray or blue.

  5. Your nose opens wide when you breathe.

  6. Your skin is pulled in around your ribs and neck when you breathe.

  7. Your heartbeat or pulse is very fast.

Can I use the quick-relief medicine too much?

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 your 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

Without a spacer

  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.

With a spacer

(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.


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 on the World Wide Web (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 © 2001 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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