What are the Different Types of Asthma Medicine?

Cathy Crenshaw Doheny

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the lungs and airways, and may cause shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness. Asthma may be treated by a primary care physician or a pulmonologist — a doctor who specializes in respiratory conditions. There are three types of asthma medicine a physician may prescribe to a patient, depending on the symptoms and the patient's health history. These include long-term asthma medication, quick-relief or rescue medication, and asthma medicine to treat allergies that cause the condition.

It is not uncommon for asthma sufferers to also fall victim to certain allergies.
It is not uncommon for asthma sufferers to also fall victim to certain allergies.

Long-term asthma medicine is generally most effective when taken on a daily basis, and includes several types of drug therapy. Inhaled corticosteroids, the most common of these, works by reducing inflammation in the airways, preventing allergic responses, and prohibiting blood vessels from leaking fluid into airway tissues. Examples of inhaled corticosteroids include fluticasone, triamcinolone and flunisolide.

Asthma medication can be delivered directly to the lung and airway by using a rescue inhaler.
Asthma medication can be delivered directly to the lung and airway by using a rescue inhaler.

Long-acting beta-2 agonists (LABAs) are another common type of long-term asthma medicine. LABAs are a type of bronchodilator, which help to reduce inflammation and open up constricted airways in moderate to severe forms of asthma. They are generally used in conjunction with inhaled corticosteroids. Examples of this type of asthma medicine include salmeterol and formoterol.

An asthma inhaler.
An asthma inhaler.

Leukotriene modifiers, such as montelukast and zafirlukast, are a type of long-term asthma medicine that lessens the creation of, or blocks, the effects of leukotrienes, the substances produced by the immune system that can cause the symptoms of asthma. These medications may be used alone or in conjunction with inhaled steroids to prevent asthma attacks, especially in adults. Theophylline, a bronchodilator in pill form, can also be used in adults as a long-term asthma medicine, though it is especially helpful in relieving symptoms a patient may experience at night. Cromolyn and nedocromil are sometimes taken three to four times a day by patients with mild, persistent asthma. These long-term medications may be especially effective in reducing asthma attacks triggered by exercise or allergens.

Oral corticosteroids, such as prednisone, can be used for acute asthma attacks.
Oral corticosteroids, such as prednisone, can be used for acute asthma attacks.

Quick-relief, or rescue, asthma medications are short-acting bronchiodilators that may help to stop an asthma attack in progress. Short-acting beta-2 agonists (SABAs)— bronchiodilators that open the lungs by relaxing the airway muscles — usually begin working in minutes and last four to six hours. Popular types of SABAs include albuterol and pirbuterol. Ipratropium, another type of short-acting bronchiodilator, may be used in addition to, or instead of, SABAs and is usually prescribed for chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Oral corticosteroids, such as prednisone or hydrocortisone, may also be used for acute asthma attacks.

Acupuncture is sometimes pursued as an alternative treatment for asthma.
Acupuncture is sometimes pursued as an alternative treatment for asthma.

Asthma medicine to treat allergy triggers may also be prescribed. These include the anti-IgE monoclonal antibodies in drugs such as omalizumab, which are often used to help control severe persistent asthma that may be triggered by airborne allergens. Omalizumab is usually given by injection every two to four weeks. Also given by regularly scheduled therapeutic injections, immunotherapy is another type of asthma medication to treat allergy triggers. This is also an effective therapy, as it works by desensitizing the body to the allergens causing the asthma, by exposing the body to small doses of those allergens.

An illustration of the pathology of asthma.
An illustration of the pathology of asthma.
Some medicines available for the treatment of asthma must be prescribed.
Some medicines available for the treatment of asthma must be prescribed.

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