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Asthma - quick-relief drugs

Asthma quick-relief medicines 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 medicines are called "bronchodilators" because they open (dilate) and help relax the muscles of your airways (bronchi).

You and your health care provider 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. Bring enough medicine with you when you travel.

Short-acting Beta-agonists

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

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

Tell your provider 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 provider may need to change your dose of daily control drugs.

Some quick-relief asthma medicines include:

  • Albuterol (ProAir HFA, Proventil HFA, Ventolin HFA)
  • Levalbuterol (Xopenex HFA)
  • Metaproterenol
  • Terbutaline

Short-acting beta-agonists may cause these side effects:

  • Anxiety.
  • Tremor (your hand or another part of your body may shake).
  • Restlessness.
  • Headache.
  • Fast and irregular heartbeats. Call your provider right away if you have this side effect.

Oral Steroids

Your provider 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.

Oral steroids are not quick-relief medicines but are often given for 7 to 14 days when your symptoms flare-up.

Oral steroids include:

  • Prednisone
  • Prednisolone
  • Methylprednisolone

Alternative Names

Asthma - quick-relief drugs - short-acting beta-agonists; Asthma - quick-relief drugs - bronchodilators; Asthma - quick-relief drugs - oral steroids; Asthma - rescue drugs; Bronchial asthma - quick relief; Reactive airway disease - quick relief; Exercise-induced asthma - quick relief

References

Bergstrom J, Kurth SM, Bruhl E, et al. Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement website. Health Care Guideline: Diagnosis and Management of Asthma. 11th ed. www.icsi.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Asthma.pdf. Updated December 2016. Accessed February 3, 2020.

Marcdante KJ, Kliegman RM. Asthma. In: Marcdante KJ, Kliegman RM, eds. Nelson Essentials of Pediatrics. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 78.

Papi A, Brightling C, Pedersen SE, Reddel HK. Asthma. Lancet. 2018;391(10122):783-800. PMID: 29273246 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29273246/.

Vishwanathan RK, Busse WW. Management of asthma in adolescents and adults. In: Burks AW, Holgate ST, O'Hehir RE, et al, eds. Middleton's Allergy: Principles and Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 52.

Review Date 1/13/2020

Updated by: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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