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Questions About Asthma Medication

When you have questions about using your asthma medications or need to help your child with his or her medications, getting the right answers could make a big difference in controlling symptoms. Below are answers to some common questions that people with asthma have about using their medications. Be sure to talk with your health care provider if you are still unclear about how any medications should be taken.

Q. What are some signs that my medication schedule may need to be adjusted?

A. If you are using your quick-relief medication for asthma symptoms more than twice a week, or more often than your health care provider recommended, that’s a sign that you may need a change in your treatment plan. Other signs that your asthma is not under control include symptoms that cause you to miss work or school or keep you awake at night. In response, your health care provider might increase your dose or try a new combination of medicines.

Q. Is it OK to use my inhaled bronchodilator more often than prescribed?

A. Inhaled bronchodilators are quick-relief medications. Such medicines tend to work well with few or no side effects when taken at the recommended dose and frequency. Using them more often than prescribed for worsening symptoms can delay proper treatment. Some studies suggest that this might make asthma become more severe in the long run and possibly increase the risk for death.

Q. What’s the difference between long-term control medication and quick-relief medication?

A. There are two main types of asthma medicines. Long-term control medication (also known as controller medication) is taken every day to treat ongoing inflammation and prevent asthma symptoms. You may need a few weeks to feel the full effects. Quick-relief medication (also known as rescue or reliever medication) is taken at the first sign of asthma symptoms for immediate relief. You should feel the effects within minutes.

Q. Is it OK to stop my long-term control medication if I don’t have symptoms?

A. The fact that you don’t have symptoms is a sign that your treatment is working the way it should. If you stop taking the medication, your asthma is likely to get worse again. Always talk with your health care provider before you make any changes to your medication plan. 

Q. How can I tell if my child’s quick-relief medication is working?

A. Your child should begin breathing easier and feeling better within five to 10 minutes. A peak-flow meter—a device that measures how fast your child can blow out air after a maximum inhalation—can also be helpful. If possible, check your child’s peak flow before giving the medication and then 20 to 30 minutes afterward. The peak flow should improve by the second reading. If your child’s symptoms don’t improve as expected, get medical help immediately.

Q. What can I do if my child is having trouble using a metered-dose inhaler?

A. A metered-dose inhaler releases medicine in a mist, which is breathed into the lungs. Although this type of inhaler works well, it can be tricky to use properly. If your child is having trouble, ask your health care provider about a spacer, a device that attaches to the inhaler to make it easier to use.

Q. Can I take an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine instead of my prescription?

A. Never take an OTC medicine in place of a prescription one that is needed to treat your asthma. Although you might be able to use some OTC decongestants and antihistamines in addition to your prescribed medication, always check with your health care provider first. Some OTC products can be dangerous for people with asthma. For example, certain OTC asthma sprays contain ingredients that can be harmful if used with asthma medications.