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Asthma - quick-relief drugs

Asthma quick-relief drugs work fast to control asthma symptoms. You take them when you are coughing, wheezing, having trouble breathing, or having an asthma attack. They are also called "rescue" drugs.

These drugs help relax the muscles of your airways. They are called "bronchodilators."

You and your doctor can make a plan for the quick-relief drugs that work for you. This plan will include when you should take them and how much you should take.

Plan ahead. Make sure you do not run out. Take enough with you when you travel.

Alternate Names

Short-acting beta-agonists; Bronchodilators; Oral steroids

Short-acting Beta-agonists

Short-acting beta-agonists are the most common quick-relief drugs for treating asthma attacks.

They also can be used just before exercising to help prevent asthma symptoms that are caused by exercise. They work by relaxing the muscles of your airways, and this lets you breathe better during an attack.

Tell your doctor if you are using quick-relief medicines twice a week or more to control your asthma symptoms. Your asthma may not be under control, and your doctor may need to change your dose of daily control drugs.

These are names of some quick-relief asthma drugs:

  • Albuterol (Proventil, Ventolin)
  • Metaproterenol (Alupent, Metaprel)
  • Pirbuterol (Maxair)
  • Terbutaline (Brethine, Brethaire, and Bricanyl)
  • Bitolterol (Tornalate)
  • Levalbuterol (Xopenex)

Quick-relief asthma drugs may cause these side effects:

  • Anxiety
  • Tremor (your hand or another part of your body is shaking)
  • Restlessness
  • Headache
  • Fast and irregular heartbeats. Tell your doctor right away if you have this side effect, especially if you have heart problems. You may be at a higher risk for sudden death from heart problems.

Oral Steroids

Your doctor might prescribe oral steroids when you have an asthma attack that is not going away. These are medicines that you take by mouth as pills, capsules, or liquids.

Your doctor will tell you how long you need to take them. Most times, you will take them for 3 to10 days

Three oral steroids are prednisone, prednisolone, and methylprednisolone.

References

Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma. Rockville, MD. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2007. NIH publications 08-4051.

Lemanske RF Jr, Mauger DT, Sorkness CA, Jackson DJ, Boehmer SJ, Martinez FD, et al. Step-up therapy for children with uncontrolled asthma receiving inhaled corticosteroids. N Engl J Med. 2010 Mar 18;362(11):975-85.

Updated: 5/16/2012

Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.


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