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How Do Asthma Medicines Work?

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What Happens During an Asthma Flare-Up?

People with asthma have what is called a chronic (say: krah-nik) problem, or a problem that is always there, even when they feel OK. Everyday stuff such as exercise, pets, or cigarette smoke can cause an asthma flare-up.

During an asthma flare-up, the airways (breathing tubes where air moves in and out of the lungs) get swollen (puffy). These narrowed airways (breathing tubes) also can get clogged with mucus. And the muscles around the airways can tighten up. All of this makes it tough to breathe.

But medicine can help. There are two different kinds of medicines for treating asthma:

1. Rescue Medications

Rescue medications can loosen the muscles around the airways. That opens up the airways and makes it easier to breathe. Rescue medicines are usually inhaled (breathed) right into the lungs, where they stop wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath quickly. In other words, they rescue a person who's having trouble breathing!

2. Controller Medications

These medicines work over a long period of time by keeping the airways from getting swollen in the first place. They may be inhaled or taken as a pill or liquid.

Rescue medications are important during a flare-up because they help someone breathe more easily right away. That means anyone who has asthma and has been prescribed rescue medications should always have them along — at school, on the basketball court, at the mall, and even on vacation.

But rescue medications don't do anything to help stop an asthma flare-up before it happens. That's where controller medications come in. These medicines might not seem to be doing anything. In fact, a kid with asthma might not feel anything at all when taking them. But these medicines are quietly doing important work to control asthma every day.

Some people with mild asthma use only rescue medications when they have flare-ups. Others who have more severe asthma must take rescue medication when they have breathing problems and they need to take controller medications every day.

If you have asthma, your doctor will decide which type of medication you need and how often you need to take it.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: August 2011
Originally reviewed by: Nicole Green, MD

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

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