Asthma | Treatment


How do I control my asthma symptoms?

Treatment of your symptoms involves avoiding things that cause asthma attacks, keeping track of your symptoms and taking medicine.

What medicines are used to treat asthma?

Asthma medicines can generally be divided into two groups: medicines to prevent attacks (controller medicines) and medicines to treat attacks (sometimes called rescue medicines). Your doctor will talk to you about these medicines and what to do if you have an asthma attack. Ask your doctor for written instructions about how to take your medicines. Your doctor may have a form to give you, or you can print out this one.

Controller and Quick-Relief Medicines

The following are some of the prescription medicines most commonly used by people who have asthma:

Controller Medicines

  • Inhaled corticosteroids
  • Cromolyn
  • Nedocromil
  • Anti-leukotrienes
  • Theophylline
  • Salmeterol (inhaled long-acting beta2 agonist)

Quick-Relief Medicines

  • Albuterol, pirbuterol, levalbuterol or bitolterol (inhaled short-acting beta2 agonist)
  • Ipratropium (anticholinergic)
  • Prednisone, prednisolone (oral steroids)

How do controller medicines work?

Controller medicines help reduce the swelling in your airways to prevent asthma attacks. Controller medicines must be taken on a regular basis--whether or not you're having symptoms. They take hours or days to start to help and don't work well unless you take them regularly.

How do rescue medicines work?

Rescue medicines (also called quick-acting or quick-relief medicines) provide quick relief during an asthma attack by helping the muscles around your airways relax, which allows your airways to open. If you feel like you’re having an asthma attack, follow your doctor’s instructions for taking this medicine right away.

Primatene Mist Inhaler was discontinued

Primatene Mist Inhaler, an over-the-counter asthma inhaler, is longer available after December 31, 2011. If you currently use Primatene Mist Inhaler, it's safe to continue using it as long as it hasn't expired.  Talk to your doctor about switching to a different medicine to treat your asthma.  For more information, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website

Warning signs of an asthma attack

  • Peak flow 50% to 80% of your personal best
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in chest

If your symptoms don’t respond to medicine or if your peak flow drops below 50% of your personal best, call your doctor or go directly to the nearest emergency room (by ambulance, if necessary).

Some information adapted from "What you and your family can do about asthma," a patient information booklet published by the Global Initiative for Asthma, a joint effort of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the World Health Organization. This and other publications are available through the Internet (

Written by editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 04/14
Created: 03/05