January 2, 2018

When a person is diagnosed with asthma, many questions may race to mind. How will this affect my life? What will I need to change to keep myself as free from attacks as possible? What kinds of medications will I need to take?

In many cases, doctors prescribe different types of medications, depending on the severity of asthma. The most common types are quick-relief medications and long-term control medications.

“Knowing the differences between the two types of asthma medicines and taking them as prescribed can really make a difference in keeping asthma under control,” said Selina Lopez, registered respiratory therapist and health educator for the Texas A&M Coastal Bend Health Education Center's Asthma Education Program.

What are quick-relief medicines?

Quick-relief medicines—also referred to as rescue medicines or fast-acting medicines—do what their name implies. They go to work right away to relieve asthma flare-up symptoms as they start happening. These medicines are often inhaled directly into the lungs, opening the airways to control symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.

It is very important for people with asthma to keep their quick-relief medicine with them at all times, including while on vacation. A doctor can explain how often it needs to be taken. If it seems like quick-relief medication is needed very often, a doctor might prescribe a daily long-term asthma control medicine to help avoid flare-ups.

What are long-term control medicines?

Long-term control medicines—also referred to as controller or maintenance medicines—work in the body over time to ease airway swelling, limit mucus and help prevent other symptoms of asthma. These types of medicines are taken through inhalers, or they can be swallowed as a pill or liquid. Remember, these medicines should be taken as prescribed, which usually means they should be used even when symptoms are not present.

Many different kinds of long-term control medicines exist, but inhaled corticosteroids are the most common. These medicines are usually given through an inhaler or nebulizer. While their name may be misleading, corticosteroids are completely different from performance-enhancing steroids used by some athletes. Corticosteroids are a safe and proven form of asthma treatment.

What else should I know?

Health care providers decide the best type of medicines and treatment for their patients based on the asthma’s severity.

If you have concerns or observe changes in asthma symptoms, be sure to tell your doctor about them. Communicating with your doctor will help him or her find the most effective treatment and make treatment updates, when needed.

-Les D. Cockrell