How to Make the Most of Asthma Medications

Here’s how your inhaler can prevent an asthma attack—or cut it short

older woman with young adult daughter at the doctors

Have asthma? You’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 13 people have asthma. Of those individuals, almost eight percent are adults and seven and a half percent are children.

Asthma is a chronic lung condition that makes it tough to get air in and out of your lungs. Symptoms flare up when you’ve been exposed to triggers like a bad cold, smoke, pollen, or animal dander. When that happens, your airway muscles tighten and squeeze those airways closed, blocking your breathing. Your body also produces extra mucus that clogs up your passages even more.

Excellent treatments are available for asthma, including inhalers. Their official name: bronchodilators. Their job is to open up those tightened airways and help you breathe. Your job is to know what they do and when to take them, and to work with your doctor to manage your asthma.

1. Know Your Inhalers

Inhaled bronchodilators are medications that fall into two categories. The more you know about how they work, and which to use in certain situations, the better you’ll be able to manage your asthma. Here’s the low-down.

Short-acting or “rescue” inhalers . These work quickly, can help you feel better right away, and are designed to be used when you feel an attack coming on. They’re not for daily use—only use them as a “rescue” when you’re having a flare-up. Some examples of short-acting bronchodilators include*:

Albuterol (ProAir HFA, Ventolin HFA, others)

Levalbuterol (Xopenex HFA)

Long-acting inhalers . The effects of these are meant to last for a long time. They’re helpful in preventing asthma attacks, so they should never be used to rescue you if you feel an attack coming on. Your doctor will tell you to use these long-acting inhalers every day, along with other medications.

Additional treatment options may include*:

Inhaled corticosteroids: These are anti-inflammatory. They reduce the inflammation, or tightening and swelling, that people with asthma may have in their airways. Some examples include:

  • Fluticasone (Flovent HFA)
  • Budesonide (Pulmicort Flexhaler)
  • Mometasone (Asmanex Twisthaler)
  • Beclomethasone (Qvar RediHaler)
  • Ciclesonide (Alvesco)

Long-acting beta2-agonists (LABAs): These bronchodilators are meant to be used regularly to control asthma that’s moderate to severe. They’re also ideal for preventing asthma symptoms at night. Your doctor will only prescribe them in combination with an inhaled corticosteroid. Some examples include*:

  • Salmeterol (Serevent)
  • Formoterol (Foradil)

2. Work with Your Doctor

Visiting your best friend who just got a cat? Heading to a campfire cookout? Feel the flu coming on? Lots of triggers can make your asthma flare up unexpectedly. That can make it a tough condition to manage, so it’s critical to communicate with your doctor to keep your asthma under control.

Follow your doctor’s instructions carefully. They will help you decide which inhaler to use in certain situations.

Keep track of your peak flows. This can be done with a device that measures how well air is flowing in and out of your lungs. It can provide your doctor with helpful information about your condition and which medications would be most beneficial.

Follow your asthma action plan. Work with your doctor to come up with a plan for what to do when your asthma flares up. Put everything in writing and keep it handy. Here’s some of the info your plan should include:

  • Which inhalers you should take
  • When you should take each—both rescue and long-term
  • Your peak-flow meter readings
  • Tips for avoiding asthma triggers
  • When to alert your doctor about an asthma attack and when to head to the emergency room

* Medicare beneficiaries can access a complete list of covered prescription drugs by visiting