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Treatment and Prevention

Asthma Treatment

Your doctor can work with you to decide about your treatment goals and what you need to do to control your asthma to achieve these goals.

Asthma treatment includes:

  • Working closely with your doctor to decide what your treatment goals are and learning how to meet those goals.
  • Avoiding things that bring on your asthma symptoms or make your symptoms worse. Doing so can reduce the amount of medicine you need to control your asthma.
  • Using asthma medicines. Allergy medicine and shots may also help control asthma in some people.
  • Monitoring your asthma so that you can recognize when your symptoms are getting worse and respond quickly to prevent or stop an asthma attack.

Treatment Results

With proper treatment, you should ideally have these results:

  • Your asthma should be controlled.
  • You should be free of asthma symptoms.
  • You should have fewer attacks. You should need to use quick-relief medicines less often.
  • You should be able to do normal activities without having symptoms.

Asthma Self-Management Plan

Your doctor will work with you to develop an asthma self-management plan for controlling your asthma on a daily basis and an emergency action plan for stopping asthma attacks. These plans will tell you what medicines you should take and other things you should do to keep your asthma under control.

Medicines for Asthma

There are two main types of medicines for asthma:

  1. Quick-relief medicines taken at the first signs of asthma symptoms for immediate relief of these symptoms. You will feel the effects of these medicines within minutes.
  2. Long-term control medicines taken every day, usually over long periods of time, to prevent symptoms and asthma episodes or attacks. You will feel the full effects of these medicines after taking them for a few weeks. People with persistent asthma need long-term control medicines.

Quick-relief Medicines

Everyone with asthma needs a quick-relief or "rescue" medicine to stop asthma symptoms before they get worse. Short-acting inhaled beta-agonists are the preferred quick-relief medicine. These medicines are bronchodilators. They act quickly to relax tightened muscles around your airways so that the airways can open up and allow more air to flow through.

You should take your quick-relief medicine when you first begin to feel asthma symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, or shortness of breath. You should carry your quick-relief inhaler with you at all times in case of an asthma attack.

Your doctor may recommend that you take your quick-relief medicines at other times as well-for example, before exercise.

Long-term Control Medicines

The most effective, long-term control medicine for asthma is an inhaled corticosteroid (kor-ti-ko-STE-roid) because this medicine reduces the airway swelling that makes asthma attacks more likely.

Inhaled corticosteroids (or steroids for short) are the preferred medicine for controlling mild, moderate, and severe persistent asthma. They are generally safe when taken as directed by your doctor.

In some cases, steroid tablets or liquid are used for short periods of time to bring asthma under control. The tablet or liquid form may also be used to control severe asthma.

Other long-term control medicines include:

  • Inhaled long-acting beta-agonists. These medicines are bronchodilators, or muscle relaxers, not anti-inflammatory drugs. They are used to help control moderate and severe asthma and to prevent nighttime symptoms. Long-acting beta-agonists are usually taken together with inhaled corticosteroid medicines.
  • Leukotriene modifiers (montelukast, zafirlukast, and zileuton), which are used either alone to treat mild persistent asthma or together with inhaled corticosteroids to treat moderate or severe asthma.
  • Cromolyn and nedocromil, which are used to treat mild persistent asthma.
  • Theophylline, which is used either alone to treat mild persistent asthma or together with inhaled corticosteroids to treat moderate persistent asthma. People who take theophylline should have their blood levels checked to be sure the dose is appropriate.

If you stop taking long-term control medicines, your asthma will likely worsen again.

Many people with asthma need both a short-acting bronchodilator to use when symptoms worsen and long-term daily asthma control medicines to treat the ongoing inflammation.

Over time, your doctor may need to make changes in your asthma medicine. You may need to increase your dose, lower your dose, or try a combination of medicines. Be sure to work with your doctor to find the best treatment for your asthma. The goal is to use the least amount of medicine necessary to control your asthma.

Most asthma medicines are inhaled. They go directly into your lungs where they are needed. There are many kinds of inhalers, and many require different techniques. It is important to know how to use your inhaler correctly.

Use a Peak Flow Meter

As part of your daily asthma self-management plan, your doctor may recommend that you use a hand-held device called a peak flow meter at home to monitor how well your lungs are working.

You use the peak flow meter by taking a deep breath in and then blowing the air out hard into the peak flow meter. The peak flow meter then gives you a peak flow number that tells you how fast you moved the air out.

You will need to find out your "personal best" peak flow number. You do this by recording your peak flow number every day for a few weeks until your asthma is under control. The highest number you get during that time is your personal best peak flow. Then you can compare future peak flow measurements to your personal best peak flow, and that will show if your asthma is staying under control.

Your doctor will tell you how and when to use your peak flow meter and how to use your medicines based on the results. You may be advised to use your peak flow meter each morning to keep track of how well you are breathing.

Your peak flow meter can help warn you of a possible asthma attack even before you notice symptoms. If your peak flow meter shows that your breathing is getting worse, you should follow your emergency asthma action plan. Take your quick-relief or other medicines as your doctor directed. Then you can use the peak flow meter to see how your airways are responding to the medicine.

Things to Know

Ask your doctor about how you can take care of your asthma. You should know:

  • What things tend to make your asthma worse and how to avoid them.
  • Early signs to watch for that mean your asthma is starting to get worse (like a drop in your peak flow number or an increase in symptoms)How and when to use your peak flow meter.
  • What medicines to take, how much to take, when to take them, and how to take them correctly.
  • When to call or see your doctor.
  • When you should get emergency treatment.

Contact Information

Allergy and Inflammation - Research
Department of Medicine
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Center for Life Science, 9th floor
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
617-723-4110
617-735-4115