A Guide to Common Asthma Medications

Apr 7, 2022


Alto Pharmacy

Photo of a woman with an asthma inhaler
Photo of a woman with an asthma inhaler
Photo of a woman with an asthma inhaler

If you’ve ever had an asthma attack or watched a friend or family member experience one, you know how uncomfortable it is when you are struggling to breathe. But while asthma, a chronic disease that affects more than 25 million Americans, may not be curable, it is certainly manageable. Whether your symptoms are mild, moderate, or severe, you can live an active life by working with your doctor to establish a treatment plan.

When used in tandem with healthy lifestyle habits and additional preventive measures to avoid triggers, asthma medications can help you control symptoms and prevent asthma attacks.  However, because there is lots of variation in how different people experience asthma, there isn’t a standardized, one-size-fits-all approach to asthma medications. For some people with mild cases of asthma, rescue medications that offer quick relief from acute asthma symptoms are enough, while moderate to severe cases often involve long-term maintenance medication.

Read on to learn more about the main types of asthma medications that your doctor may prescribe.

How do I know if I have asthma?

First, let’s discuss how to tell if you have asthma. The condition doesn’t look the same in each person, and an individual’s asthma symptoms may change over time, but common signs include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest tightness or pain

  • Wheezing when exhaling

  • Trouble sleeping because of coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath

  • Coughing or wheezing intensified by the cold or flu

If you experience persistent coughing or wheezing for more than a few days or any of the symptoms above, consult with your doctor. An asthma diagnosis is based on your medical history, an evaluation of your symptoms, a physical exam, and lung tests.

You may find that your symptoms flare up in certain situations, like during exercise, or that they are intensified by environmental triggers like allergies. In these cases, you may have to take extra precautions when engaging in specific activities or supplement your asthma medication with allergy treatment. Your doctor can help you determine your specific treatment needs.

Learn how to prevent seasonal allergies and reduce symptoms of allergy-triggered asthma.

Quick-relief asthma medications for acute symptoms

People with asthma often need immediate relief when symptoms flare up. Quick-relief or “rescue” asthma medications help in these situations. Used on an as-needed basis, these medications relax airway muscles to open the lungs and relieve shortness of breath and wheezing within minutes. They can stop an asthma attack in progress or help prevent exercise-induced asthma.

Common quick-relief asthma medications include:

  • Albuterol (branded options include ProAir® HFA, Proventil® HFA, Ventolin® HFA)

  • Levalbuterol (Xopenex HFA®)

Inhalers are the most common form of quick-relief asthma medications. Albuterol and Levalbuterol are also available as a liquid solution for nebulizer use.  Common side effects of this medication class include nervousness or shakiness, headache, throat or nasal irritation, and muscle aches. There are also some known severe side effects, including allergic reactions like hives, a rapid heart rate, or heart palpitations. If you have any concerns, contact your doctor to discuss treatment options.

You may be able to manage mild or exercise-induced asthma symptoms with quick-relief medications alone. However, treatment for more persistent asthma symptoms often involves long-term control medication.

Long-term control medications

While rescue medications can help treat acute asthma symptoms during an asthma attack, long-term control medications are taken regularly to prevent symptoms from escalating in the first place. They are a very important component of asthma treatment for those with more serious symptoms.

There are two main types of long-term control medications for asthma: inhaled corticosteroids and combination inhalers that contain both corticosteroids and long-acting beta agonists (LABAs).

Inhaled Corticosteroids

Inhaled corticosteroids like Flovent® HFA and Qvar Redihaler® reduce inflammation and swelling in the airways, making them less likely to react to asthma triggers. They are primarily taken via inhaler. Their effectiveness depends on daily use, and they are not effective at treating acute asthma attacks. It may take several months to see improvement in asthma symptoms from using inhaled corticosteroids.

Inhaled corticosteroids typically do not cause serious long-term side effects, but long-term use in children has been linked to slight delays in growth. However, the benefits generally outweigh the risks. If you have any concerns, your doctor can help you make the best choice for your child’s asthma treatment.

Read our previous blog for more information on managing your child’s asthma.

Mouth and throat irritation and oral yeast infections have also been known to occur as a result of using inhaled corticosteroids. As a precaution, rinse your mouth with water after each dose to prevent infections.

Combination Inhalers

Long-acting beta agonists (LABAs), a type of bronchodilator medication that opens airways and reduces swelling, can be used on an ongoing basis to control moderate to severe asthma. However, some research has linked this medication class to serious asthma attacks. The risk is strongest when a LABA is used on its own. For that reason, they are typically taken in combination with an inhaled corticosteroid (ICS).

Common ICS/LABA combination inhalers include:

Combination inhaler side effects are similar to those of inhaled corticosteroids used alone.

Medications for Severe Asthma Attacks

In some cases, if severe symptoms persist even after using inhaled corticosteroids and combined ICS/LABA inhalers, oral corticosteroids like Prednisone and Methylprednisolone, may be used to treat severe asthma attacks. Your doctor can explain more about the potential risks and side effects of these medications if relevant to your treatment plan.

Medication for allergy-triggered asthma

If your asthma is triggered by allergies, allergy medications may be a part of your asthma treatment plan. There are a variety of over-the-counter and prescription allergy medications, including oral antihistamines like Claritin®, Allegra®, and Zyrtec®, decongestants like Afrin® and Sudafed®, and corticosteroid and cromolyn nasal sprays. Your doctor can work with you to find the best treatment option for your allergy symptoms, so that you can avoid allergy-induced asthma attacks. However, allergy medication isn’t a substitute for asthma medication.

Breathe easier with a better pharmacy

Remember to be patient with yourself as it may take some time to find the best asthma medications for your symptoms. Discuss the potential for side effects with your doctor and reach out to our team if you have any questions during the course of your treatment. 

Alto is here every step of the way to make it easy to manage your asthma symptoms. Our team of pharmacists is available to answer questions about your asthma medications, and we offer free, same-day delivery and medication management tools like reminders and auto refills in our app.

Reach out via phone at 1-800-874-5881 or in-app messaging to learn how Alto can support your asthma treatment plan.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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