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How Do Asthma Medicines Work?

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. Quick-relief Medicines

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

2. Long-term Control Medicines

Long-term control medicines (also called controller or maintenance 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.

Quick-relief medicines 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 quick-relief medicines should always have them along — at school, on the basketball court, at the mall, and even on vacation.

But quick-relief medicines don't do anything to help prevent an asthma flare-up. That's where long-term control medicines 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 quick-relief medicines when they have flare-ups. Others who have more severe asthma must take quick-relief medicines when they have breathing problems and they need to take long-term control medicines 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: January 2014
Originally reviewed by: Nicole A. Green, MD