Asthma Medications: A Guide

Asthma Drugs and Medications: What You Need to Know


The first step in managing your asthma symptoms is to know and avoid your personal asthma triggers. Still, avoidance only goes so far, so you may need an asthma drug to help control your symptoms. The right medication will depend on a range of factors, including your age, symptoms, triggers, and response to the drugs.

Knowing what medications are available can help you work with your doctor to create a treatment plan that’s best for you. Read on to learn about the types of asthma drugs available today, what they’re used to treat, and what side effects they can cause.

Bronchodilators and anti-inflammatories

Asthma medications are most often delivered using asthma inhalers.
  • The metered dose inhaler (MDI) is a hand-held device that uses a chemical spray to send medication into your mouth.
  • A nebulizer is a machine that sends small particles of medication into your nose and mouth using a tube or mask.
  • A dry powder inhaler (DPI) is another hand-held device you use to breathe in quickly to bring the medication into your mouth.

Asthma medications typically fall into two groups: bronchodilators and anti-inflammatories. They work by targeting the two main symptoms of asthma.

Bronchodilators target the tightened muscles in your lungs that restrict your airways. These drugs help relax the muscles in your lungs. This widens your airways and makes it easier for you to breathe. Bronchodilators are used for quick relief of asthma symptoms.

Anti-inflammatory agents target inflammation in your lungs. They reduce swelling and irritation in your lungs, which helps improve your breathing. Anti-inflammatory drugs are used for daily maintenance to help prevent asthma symptoms.

Quick-relief medications

Asthma drugs are further divided between quick-relief and long-term medications. All quick-relief medications are bronchodilators.

Quick-relief medications are also called rescue therapy. They’re used to provide rapid relief from asthma flare-ups or more serious attacks.

Short-acting beta agonists

These inhaled medications provide near-instant relief during an asthma attack, and the relief can last for several hours. Short-acting beta agonists are the drug of choice for treating exercise-induced attacks. Examples include:

The more common side effects of these drugs include:

  • shakiness
  • excitability
  • headache
  • throat irritation
  • fast heart rate

In rare and serious cases, these drugs may cause heart arrhythmias.

Keep learning: What is exercise-induced asthma? »


Anticholinergics are another class of fast-acting, inhalable bronchodilators that can provide quick relief from an asthma attack. An example is ipatropium bromide (Atrovent).

The more common side effects of anticholinergics include:

  • trouble breathing
  • bloody nose
  • nasal dryness
  • nasal irritation
  • dry mouth
Prescription vs. OTC
All medications used to treat asthma are prescription drugs. There are no asthma drugs available over the counter (OTC).

Rare but serious side effects include bronchospasm, which are muscle spasms in the lungs that narrow your airways. They also include worsening of pre-existing heart arrhythmias.

Long-term asthma control medications

Long-term asthma control medications are taken daily. They’re used to prevent asthma symptoms rather than treat sudden asthma attacks. For long-term treatment, your doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug or a bronchodilator or a combination of the two.

Long-term asthma control medications are divided into the following six groups.

Inhalable corticosteroids

These anti-inflammatory drugs are the strongest and most commonly prescribed long-term asthma drugs. Examples of these drugs include:

The more common side effects of inhalable corticosteroids include:

  • throat irritation
  • nose bleed
  • headache
    • nose irritation

Rare but serious side effects can include:

  • bronchospasm
  • vision problems
  • increased blood pressure in the eyes
  • decreased growth in children

Oral corticosteroids

Corticosteroids are systemic drugs, which means they affect your entire body. They can be used to treat severe asthma symptoms. These drugs are anti-inflammatories, and they work by relieving swelling and inflammation in your airways. Oral corticosteroids are taken by mouth.

Examples of these drugs include:

The more common side effects of these drugs include:

  • weight gain
  • high blood sugar
  • trouble sleeping
  • slow wound healing

Long-term use of corticosteroids can cause side effects that may be serious. Therefore, these drugs should only be used for short-term treatment. Examples of serious side effects include:

Long-acting beta agonists

Long-acting beta antagonists (LABAs) are bronchodilators. They’re used to help prevent asthma attacks and are typically taken twice per day using an inhaler. They are always used along with an inhalable corticosteroid. These drugs are fast-acting and can provide relief for up to 12 hours.

Examples of these drugs include:

The more common side effects of these drugs include headache and muscle pain. Rare but serious side effects can include bronchospasm and throat spasm.

Combination inhalers

Combination inhalers are common prescriptions for asthma. They include a combination of a corticosteroid and a LABA. Combinations available in the United States include:

The more common side effects of these drugs include headache and throat infection. Rare but serious side effects can include heart arrhythmias, increased blood pressure, and bronchospasm.

Leukotriene modifiers

Leukotriene modifiers are considered anti-inflammatory drugs, but they work differently from corticosteroids. They come in tablet form and work by blocking the action of leukotrienes. Leukotrienes are substances in your lungs that cause the air passages to constrict. They also cause your lungs to make excess mucus.

Examples of leukotriene modifiers include:

The more common side effects of these drugs include headache, stomach pain, and muscle pain. More serious side effects can include liver damage, blood disorders, and seizures.


Methylxanthines are bronchodilators that are also thought to have some anti-inflammatory effects. These drugs come as pills. One example of a methylxanthine is theophylline (Uniphyl, Theo-24, Theo-Dur).

These drugs are rarely prescribed. This is because they require close monitoring to make sure that the amount of drug in your body stays within a narrow range. If the amount goes above that range, it puts you at risk of serious side effects such as heart arrhythmias and seizures.

The more common side effects of these drugs include:

  • headache
  • trouble sleeping
  • nausea
  • vomiting


Immunomodulators are also called biologics. They affect your immune system, blocking substances that cause asthma attacks. These drugs are typically only prescribed for people who can’t control their asthma symptoms with other types of asthma medications. Examples of these drugs include:

Each of these drugs can cause different side effects, but the common ones include:

  • headache
  • tiredness
  • injection site reactions
  • muscle and joint pain
  • infections

More serious side effects can include:

  • hypersensitivity reactions, which can include anaphylaxis
  • bronchospasm
  • heart attack
  • stroke

Talk with your doctor

If you have asthma, your treatment will likely include medications. The drugs that are best for you depend on several factors your doctor will discuss with you.

If you have questions about asthma medications, talk to your doctor. Some questions you might ask include:

  • Which of my asthma symptoms can be controlled with medication?
  • Am I taking other drugs that might interact with asthma medications?
  • What are some side effects I should watch for?
  • How else could I manage my asthma?

You asked, we answered

  • Are there nonmedical ways that can help me manage asthma?
  • Medication isn’t the only way to help manage your asthma symptoms. Avoiding your triggers and creating an asthma action plan with your doctor can help. You can also try other approaches, such as supplements, biofeedback, and yoga. Be sure to keep in mind that even when using any of these methods, you’ll likely still need medication to treat your asthma.

    To find out more, check out these alternative treatments for asthma.

    - Healthline Medical Team
  • Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

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