Asthma is a health condition that affects many people. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, 26 million people have asthma in the United States. If you’re one of those people, you may be interested in alternative treatments beyond the medication your doctor prescribes. Learn how magnesium sulfate is used to treat asthma and what you should know before taking magnesium supplements for asthma.

Asthma is a chronic, long-term lung disease that causes inflamed and narrowed airways. If you have asthma, certain triggers can cause the muscles in your airways to tighten. This causes your airways to swell and narrow. Your airways may also produce more mucus than usual.

Common symptoms of asthma include:

  • chest tightness
  • difficulty breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing
  • wheezing

Doctors have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of asthma. According to Larry Altshuler, M.D., a practicing internist, hospitalist, and integrative practitioner at the Southwest Regional Medical Center in Oklahoma, most experts believe that genetic and environmental factors play a role. Some of those factors may include:

  • an inherited disposition for developing allergies and asthma
  • having certain respiratory infections during childhood
  • coming into contact with certain airborne allergens or viral infections when your immune system is still developing

A variety of things can trigger asthma symptoms. Exposure to allergens, such as pollen, animal dander, or dust mites, is a common trigger. Environmental irritants, such as smoke or strong smells, may also trigger asthma symptoms.

The following may also trigger asthma symptoms:

  • extreme weather conditions
  • physical activity
  • respiratory illness, such as the flu
  • emotional responses, such as yelling, laughing, crying, or feeling panic

Learn more: Common asthma triggers and how to avoid them »

Your doctor can diagnose asthma during a physical exam. They may order certain tests to verify their findings. These tests may include spirometry or bronchoprovocation.

If you doctor diagnoses you with asthma, they’ll probably prescribe two kinds of medication. They can prescribe controller medications for long-term control and prevention of asthma attacks. They can prescribe rescue medications for short-term relief during acute asthma attacks.

Controller medications

Your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following medications for long-term control:

Rescue medications

The most common rescue medications are inhalers stocked with short-acting beta-2 agonists. These are also called bronchodilators. They’re meant to provide fast relief for acute asthma symptoms. Unlike controller medications, they aren’t meant to be taken on a regular basis.

In addition to these medications, magnesium sulfate may help stop some asthma attacks.

Magnesium isn’t a recommended first-line treatment for asthma. But if you use it with other medications, magnesium sulfate may help stop an acute asthma attack. Some people also take magnesium supplements as part of their daily routine.

Emergency treatment

If you go to the emergency room with a severe asthma attack, you may receive magnesium sulfate to help stop it.

You may receive magnesium sulfate intravenously, which means through an IV, or through a nebulizer, which is a type of inhaler. According to a research review published in the journal Asia Pacific Allergy, evidence suggests that magnesium sulfate is useful for treating severe asthma attacks when people receive it through an IV. Fewer studies have found that nebulized magnesium sulfate is useful. More research is needed.

It’s possible that magnesium may help stop an asthma attack by:

  • relaxing and dilating your airways
  • reducing inflammation in your airways
  • inhibiting chemicals that cause your muscles to spasm
  • increasing your body’s production of nitric oxide, which helps reduce inflammation

In general, magnesium is only recommended for people with life-threatening asthma attacks. It may also be used to treat people whose symptoms remain severe after an hour of intensive conventional therapy, says Niket Sonpal, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York.

Routine supplements

When it comes to taking magnesium supplements for asthma relief, the evidence from research is limited. According to Sonpal, it’s too early to recommend routine use of magnesium for asthma treatment.

“Further clinical research on magnesium use and establishment of protocols and guidelines while using magnesium are needed to make this therapeutic agent part of the asthma action plan,” he says.

If you’d like to try magnesium supplements, check with your doctor first. Your recommended dosage of magnesium will vary, depending on your age, weight, and other factors.

According to Altshuler, many oral magnesium supplements are poorly absorbed. “Amino acid chelates are the best but are more expensive,” he says. He notes you can also apply magnesium topically.

If you’re thinking about taking magnesium supplements for asthma, speak with your doctor first. It’s important to balance your magnesium intake with your calcium intake. Your doctor can help you determine the appropriate dosage.

Consuming too much magnesium can cause serious health effects, including:

  • irregular heartbeat
  • low blood pressure
  • confusion
  • slowed breathing
  • coma

Taking too much magnesium can even be fatal.

For this reason, Altshuler recommends starting with the smallest dose possible and building up gradually from there. Your doctor can help you through this process.

Magnesium may also interact with certain medications. Ask your doctor about possible interactions.

While there’s no cure for asthma, modern medical treatments make the condition manageable for most people. Poorly controlled asthma can raise your risk of a serious asthma attack, so it’s important to take your controller medications as prescribed. Acute asthma attacks can be life-threatening. You should keep your rescue medications on hand.

An asthma attack can happen anywhere and at any time. It’s important to have an asthma action plan. Your doctor can help you learn how to avoid your triggers and lower your risk of asthma attacks. They can also help you learn how to treat asthma attacks and get emergency medical care when you need it.

Before you start taking magnesium supplements for asthma, discuss the potential risks and benefits with your doctor. Your doctor can help you determine the correct dose. They can also help monitor any potential side effects.

Keep reading: Stay active with your asthma action plan »