How is asthma treated?

The most common form of treatment is medication taken through an inhaler, also called a pump or a puffer. Inhalers contain measured doses of medication that you take into your airways when you breathe in.

The most common inhalers are preventer inhalers, which try to stop asthma symptoms from occurring, and reliever inhalers, which relieve asthma symptoms when they do occur.

Different inhalers work in different ways. It’s vital you have an inhaler that you can use correctly. It’s important that your doctor, nurse or pharmacist:

  • teaches you how to use your inhaler correctly when you first use it
  • checks you use it properly at every asthma check up

If you don’t use your inhaler correctly, the medication won’t get into your airways and you won’t get the full benefit of it.

Preventer inhalers

The most important thing in treating asthma is to control the inflammation in your airways.

Preventer inhalers usually contain medication called inhaled steroids. They are similar to substances our bodies make naturally. Inhaling extra steroids every day helps to control the inflammation and reduces symptoms.

The dose of steroid given by an inhaler is usually very low and unlikely to cause any side effects. Occasionally the steroid can make your mouth dry or sore. You can reduce the chance of this by rinsing your mouth with water after using the inhaler, or by using a spacer. A spacer is a large, empty container made of plastic. 

Using an inhaler and spacer for asthma

Most people with asthma need to take their preventer medication regularly, once or twice a day.

Reliever inhalers

You only need to take your reliever inhaler when symptoms start. You should take it as early as possible when you get symptoms like wheezing, breathlessness or a tight chest.

Reliever inhalers contain medication called short-acting beta agonists, or SABAs, which relax the muscles around the tightened airways, so the airways can open wider. This makes it easier to breathe and reduces your symptoms. The most common SABA is salbutamol, often known as Ventolin.

Reliever inhalers work very quickly – often within seconds – and you will usually be able to feel the benefit straight away.

Other treatments for asthma

If your asthma is not under control, your health care professional may suggest other preventer treatments to reduce inflammation. They include a tablet such as montelukast or an injection given in hospital.

It may also help to avoid triggers such as smoke, animal fur and dust. Your health care professional may refer you to a specialist immunologist to treat your allergies.  A physiotherapist can give advice on breathing exercises.

You can also help to manage your asthma by:

Medication to avoid if you have asthma

Most tablets and medicines are safe if you have asthma. But if you have high blood pressure or angina, you should avoid taking beta blockers. These work in the opposite way to your reliever inhaler and bring on asthma symptoms.

Some people with asthma should avoid taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs - used to relieve pain, reduce inflammation and lower high temperature – including aspirin and ibuprofen. In around one in ten people with asthma, these drugs make symptoms suddenly and severely worse.

Next: How to manage your asthma >

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Last medically reviewed: June 2017. Due for review: June 2020

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.