Asthma medications for adults

Medicines used to manage asthma

There are many different types of asthma medicines and sometimes you will have to take more than one. They fall into the main categories of:

  • preventers – inhalers or tablets taken every day to prevent asthma symptoms from developing 
  • relievers – inhalers taken when needed to ease asthma symptoms
  • steroid tablets – used for a short time when symptoms are severe.

Asthma medicines are generally available in two main types of inhaler devices – metered dose inhalers (MDI) or puffers and dry powder inhalers such as Turbuhalers, Accuhalers and Handihalers. Metered dose inhalers (puffers) can be used with a spacer. Read more about inhalers and spacers.

Preventers

Preventers are used over the long term to prevent asthma symptoms from coming on.

  • Preventers must be taken every day, even when you are not having symptoms.
  • Preventers take days or weeks to work, compared to relievers, which take minutes.
  • The main types of preventers commonly used are:
    • steroid preventers
    • long-acting bronchodilator preventers.

Steroid preventers

Examples of steroid preventers

What do steroid preventers do?

  • They work by reducing swelling of your airway and preventing mucus build up, which narrows the airways.
  • Your asthma can get worse if you skip doses when you forget or think you are better.
  • It's important not to skip doses. Talk to your doctor about the reducing your dose if you think you are better.
  • Research has found steroid preventers to be safe when used for a long time.
  • There are some side effects that can be reduced by using a spacer (see below) and rinsing your mouth after taking your preventer.

 Long-acting bronchodilator preventers

 Examples of long-acting bronchodilators
Long-acting bronchodilators include: 

These long-acting bronchodilators should be only if you regularly use a steroid preventer.

Some brands of inhalers contain a steroid preventer plus a long-acting bronchodilator in a single inhaler, for convenience, such as:

You may hear these described as combination inhalers.

What do long-acting bronchodilator preventers do?

  • If your asthma symptoms are not well controlled by the steroid preventer alone your doctor may add a long-acting bronchodilator preventer.
  • A bronchodilator preventer widens (dilates) your airways (bronchi) by relaxing the muscle that surrounds the airways.
  • Bronchodilators are used with your steroid inhaler. The medicines in these inhalers work in a similar way to relievers, but work for up to 24 hours. 
  • Symbicort is the only combination inhaler that is used as both a preventer and a reliever. When you use it, there is no need for an extra reliever inhaler.

Relievers

 Examples of relievers

What do relievers do?

  • Relievers are used for quick relief when you are experiencing difficulty breathing. They are used to relieve asthma symptoms once they have started.
  • Relievers are fast-acting so they improve your breathing immediately.
  • They should only be used occasionally or now and again. Using them too often (more than 2 times a week) means that your asthma is not well controlled. Tell your doctor if this is happening. You will need your asthma medication to be reviewed. 
  • Relievers are used as the 'first aid' treatment for asthma symptoms. Read more about asthma first aid.  

 
Image credits: Relievers Asthma Canada

Prednisone (steroid tablets)

Prednisone is a tablet form of steroid that works very well to reduce inflammation (swelling) in your airways. If your asthma symptoms become severe or if you have an asthma attack, your GP or asthma nurse may give you a short course of prednisone tablets for 3 to 6 days to help your asthma settle.

Short courses of prednisone are safe and have no lasting side effects. If you need prednisone more than 2 times a year then your asthma is not well controlled and you need to review your self-management plan with your doctor.

If your asthma is more difficult to control, you may need to take prednisone long term, but this would be under the care of a specialist.

Important points to remember about prednisone

  • Long-term treatment with steroid tablets is only needed in a small number of people with asthma.
  • Good asthma care will reduce the need for steroid tablets.
  • If you need steroid tablets, your doctor must supervise this treatment and you should see them regularly.
  • A medic-alert bracelet for steroids is only needed if you take steroid tablets for months or years.
  • It's dangerous to suddenly stop taking steroid tablets if you have been taking them for months or years.

What is an inhaler?

An inhaler is a device used to send medicine to your airways. By getting medicine directly to your lungs, smaller doses of medicine are needed and it can start working more quickly. The main types of inhaler devices are metered dose inhalers (MDI) and dry powder inhalers such as Turbuhalers, Accuhalers and Handihalers.

Read more about the different inhaler devices and the points to consider when deciding on the right inhaler for you.

What is a spacer?

A spacer is a long plastic tube that your inhaler fits into. It makes using an MDI inhaler much easier. Your doctor or nurse can show you how to use a spacer properly. Spacers are not just for children, adults can use them, too. You can often get a spacer for free from your doctor – just ask them for one. Read more about spacers

Asthma medications and competitive sports

If you are an athlete and need to take medication to keep your asthma under control, you need to know which inhalers and medications are allowed.

Many asthma medications contain Beta2-Agonists, which are not allowed in competitive sport. If you need to take one of these inhalers, you need to apply for a therapeutic use exemption.  Visit DrugFree Sports NZ for details. 

Learn more

Asthma medicines Asthma & Respiratory Foundation, NZ
Asthma medications Asthma New Zealand and The Lung Association, NZ, 2016
How is asthma treated and controlled? National Heart Lung & Blood Institute, USA

References

  1. Adult asthma guidelines, 2016 Asthma + Respiratory Foundation, NZ
Credits: Sandra Ponen, pharmacist. Reviewed By: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland Last reviewed: 14 Sep 2018