Asthma medicine comes in two main types:
. Rescue medications, also called quick-relief or fast-acting
medications, work immediately to relieve asthma symptoms when they
occur. These types of medicines are often inhaled directly into the
lungs, where they open up the airways and relieve symptoms such as
wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath, often within minutes.
But as effective as they are, rescue medications don't have a
Controller medications, also called preventive or maintenance
medications, work over a period of time to reduce airway
inflammation and help prevent asthma symptoms from occurring. They
may be inhaled or swallowed as a pill or liquid.
, usually given through an
, loosen the tightened muscles around inflamed airways and are the
most often-prescribed rescue medications. The most common of these
are called beta
-agonists. These medications are related to adrenaline and usually
work within minutes to provide temporary relief of symptoms.
If the bronchodilator alone doesn't resolve a severe
flare-up, other medications may be given by mouth or injection to
help treat it.
If your child has been prescribed rescue medication, it's
important to keep these medicines on hand. That means at home, at
the mall, at sport practice, and even on vacation.
Rescue medications, although an important part of asthma
treatment, can be overused. Talk with your child's doctor about
how often your child uses the rescue medication. If it's too
much, the doctor also may prescribe a controller medicine, designed
to prevent asthma flare-ups from happening.
Because your child's airways may be inflamed even in between
flare-ups, controller medications may be needed to prevent
unexpected asthma flare-ups. Slower-acting controller medicines can
take days to weeks to start working, but when they do, they prevent
airway inflammation and keep the lungs from making too much
There are a variety of controller medications, but inhaled
are most common. They're usually given through an inhaler or
nebulizer. Despite their name, corticosteroids are
the same as performance-enhancing steroids used by athletes. They
are a safe and proven form of treatment for asthma.
In fact, inhaled corticosteroids are the preferred long-term
treatment for children with frequent asthma symptoms. Research
shows that they improve asthma control and their risk of causing
long-term negative effects is minimal. (But corticosteroids that
are swallowed in liquid or pill form may cause side effects if used
daily over a long period of time.)
Long-acting bronchodilators can also be used as controller
medications. These relax the muscles of the airways for up to 12
hours, but can't be used for quick relief of symptoms because
they don't start to work immediately.
Even if your child takes controller medicine regularly, rescue
medication will still be needed to handle flare-ups when they
Working With the Doctor
Your child's doctor will determine which type of medicine
your child needs, depending on how frequent and how severe the
asthma symptoms are. Both the type and dosage of medication that
your child needs are likely to change, with the goal being to have
your child on the lowest amount of medication necessary for
effective asthma management.
Because you spend more time with your child than the doctor
will, you're an important player in your child's asthma
treatment. For example, you can track how well the medicine is
working by using a
peak flow meter
. You also can record information in an
and ask your doctor to create an
asthma action plan
, if you don't already have one. By reporting any concerns or
changes in your child's symptoms, you can provide information
that will help the doctor select the best course of treatment.
Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: May 2007
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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