How to Make the Most of Asthma Medications

Here’s how your inhaler can prevent an asthma attack—or cut it short

Learning about inhalers

Have asthma? You’re in good company. According to the American Lung Association, more than 20 million American adults were coping with asthma in 2016. Asthma is also one of the most common chronic conditions among children. More than three million kids under 18 had an asthma attack in 2016.

Asthma is a chronic lung condition that makes it tough to get air in and out of your lungs. It often only flares up when you’ve been exposed to triggers like a bad cold, smoke, pollen, or animal dander. When that happens, your airway muscles tighten and squeeze those airways closed, blocking your breathing, and secreting mucus that clogs up your passages even more. 

Luckily, there are excellent treatments for asthma, including inhalers. Their official name: bronchodilators. Their job is to open up those tightened airways and help you breathe. Your job is to know what they do and when to take them, and to work with your doctor to manage your asthma.

1. Know Your Inhalers

Inhaled bronchodilators are medications that fall in to two categories. The more you know about how they work—and which are best to use in certain situations—the better you’ll be able to manage your asthma. Here’s the low-down.

Short-acting or “rescue” inhalers. These work quickly, can help you feel better right away, and are designed to be used when you feel an attack coming on. They’re not for daily use—only use them as a “rescue” when you’re having a flare-up. These are some of the short-acting bronchodilators:

  • Albuterol (ProAir HFA, Ventolin HFA, others)
  • Levalbuterol (Xopenex HFA)

Long-acting inhalers. The effects of these are meant to last for a long time. They’re helpful at preventing asthma attacks, so you don’t necessarily use them to rescue you if you feel an attack coming on. Your doctor may tell you to use these long-acting inhalers every day, along with other medications. 

Inhaled corticosteroids: These are anti-inflammatory. They reduce the low-level tightening and swelling that may always be present in your airways. Some examples:

  • Fluticasone (Flovent HFA)
  • Budesonide (Pulmicort Flexhaler)
  • Mometasone (Asmanex Twisthaler)
  • Beclomethasone (Qvar RediHaler)
  • Ciclesonide (Alvesco)

Long-acting Beta2-agonists (LABAs): These bronchodilators are meant to be used regularly to control asthma that’s moderate to severe. They’re also ideal for preventing asthma symptoms at night. Your doctor will only prescribe them in combination with an inhaled corticosteroid.

  • Salmeterol (Serevent)
  • Formoterol (Foradil)

2. Work with Your Doctor

Visiting your best friend who just got a cat? Heading to a campfire cookout? Feel the flu coming on? Lots of triggers can make your asthma flare up unexpectedly. That can make it a tough condition to manage, so it’s critical to communicate with your doctor to keep your asthma under control.

Follow your doctor’s instructions carefully. They will inform you which inhaler to use in certain situations. 

Keep track of your peak flows. This can be done with a device that measures how well air is flowing in and out of your lungs. It can provide your doctor with helpful information about your condition and which medications would be most beneficial.

Follow your asthma action plan. Work with your doctor to come up with a plan for what to do when your asthma flares up. Put everything in writing and keep it handy. Here’s some of the info your plan should include:

  • Which inhalers you should take
  • When you should take each—both rescue and long-term
  • Your peak-flow meter readings
  • Tips for avoiding asthma triggers
  • When to alert your doctor about an asthma attack and when to head to the emergency room