Asthma medications are usually grouped into relievers and preventers. Preventers are used daily to prevent asthma symptoms, whereas reliever medicines are used when necessary to relieve symptoms.
You may need to use one or more asthma medications to manage your asthma.
Asthma inhalers are hand-held portable devices that deliver medication to your lungs.
Most asthma medications are taken using an inhaler (puffer) device.
Relievers are fast-acting asthma medications. They provide quick relief from the symptoms of asthma – wheeze, chest tightness, cough and shortness of breath.
Also called ‘bronchodilators’, relievers relax the airway muscles and open your airways, making it easier for you to breathe. They work within minutes, with the effects lasting for up to 4 hours.
Anyone with asthma should always carry a reliever. Relievers usually come in a blue or grey inhaler (puffer) device. A well-known reliever is Ventolin (salbutamol).
Preventers help to control asthma symptoms and prevent attacks. They reduce the inflammation (redness and swelling) in your airways, making them less sensitive.
Many adults with asthma take a preventer - usually as an inhaler which delivers a low dose of corticosteroid to the lungs.
Corticosteroid preventers are usually prescribed for an adult who:
- has had asthma symptoms twice or more in the last month
- is sometimes woken up by asthma symptoms
- has had a flare-up requiring an urgent visit to a GP or emergency department in the last 12 months
Combination medications are preventers that also contain a second medication, a 'long-acting bronchodilator', as well as the corticosteroid. The long-acting bronchodilator helps to relax the tightened airway muscles, allowing the airways to open and more air to reach your lungs.
Preventers take several days or even weeks to work (so they’re not for the quick relief of symptoms). To work properly, preventers need to be used every day, even when you have no symptoms.
How to use an inhaler
Most of the asthma medicines come in an inhaler (puffer) device. To help achieve the best control of your asthma, inhalers must be used properly. If you are using a puffer, you should always use a spacer – a plastic container with a mouthpiece or mask at one end – to ensure the asthma medication gets into your lungs.
Other asthma medicines come in the form of a dry powder or fine spray that is only released when you breathe in. Sometimes, medicine can be breathed in as a vapour through a nebuliser. It is very important to follow your doctor’s or pharmacist’s advice on using these medicines.
If you’re unsure of the correct inhaler technique, take a look at the 'How to' videos on How to use an asthma inhaler, or ask your doctor or pharmacist for a demonstration.
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Last reviewed: June 2018