Asthma medication

There are sprays, powder inhalers and even a tablet. So how do you know which medication is best to manage your asthma?

Bupa’s National Medical Director Dr Rob Grenfell explains how asthma medication works and why your preventer is so important.

Reliever medications

Your reliever helps relax the muscles surrounding the airways which narrow during an asthma flare-up.

“There is a whole range of medications that work to open the airways up, some of them work for a short time, come on instantly and work over 2-4 hours and others will take a while to work but will work over 24 hours,” says Dr Grenfell.
Sprays – the most common type of reliever sprays is the (blue and dark blue or blue and grey) salbutamol puffer, commonly known as Ventolin. It’s a fast acting medication used relieve asthma symptoms including; wheezing and breathlessness. It can be difficult for children to use correctly so a spacer is recommended.  
Powder inhaler – the (white and blue) terbutaline inhaler commonly known as Bricanyl is another widely used reliever. It’s a fast acting reliever similar to salbutamol puffers, but it’s an inhaled powder.  

Preventer medications

Dr Grenfell says preventer medications in asthma are usually corticosteroid derivatives which work to reduce inflammation in the lining of the airways.

“The principal thing preventers do is decrease the amount of swelling in these airways so they’re more open,” says Dr Grenfell. “That’s were corticosteroids comes in, like the way the steroid can stop an itch on the skin, it also prevents inflammation in the airways.”
Unlike relievers which work immediately, preventer medication can take up to two weeks to take effect.

Corticosteroid Sprays – Common corticosteroid sprays include; Alvesco, Flixotide, Flutiform, Qvar and Seretide. These sprays can cause a sore throat and it’s important to rinse your mouth out after using them to avoid mouth thrush.
Powder inhaler – Similar to the preventer sprays; Breo, Pulmicort, Symbicort all contain corticosteroids so it’s important you rinse your mouth after use. 
Tablet – non-steroid tablets known as Montelukast & Singulair are preventers commonly used to treat those with exercise-induced asthma. Because of the convenience of a tablet, it is often used in managing childhood asthma. 
Non- corticosteroid sprays and inhalers – (Intal & Tilade) are medications used to prevent the swelling and restrictions occurring in the airways. They’re commonly used to treat those with allergic or exercise induced asthma.

Corticosteroid tablets 

Some people with severe asthma may be prescribed corticosteroids tablets, known as prednisone, during serious flare ups.

A person is generally given a short dose of the steroid to help reduce inflammation of the airways. It’s important to taper off corticosteroids tablets as directed by your doctor to prevent withdrawal symptoms including aches, pain in the joints, feeling weak or extremely tired.


This therapy is an option for those with moderate to severe asthma triggered by allergies. It involves a visit to the allergist or immunologist to test for allergies.
The treatment is a series of injections over time with small amounts of allergens with the aim to desensitise a person over time.

There can be side effects including; rashes, headaches and tiredness.

Managing your medication

Dr Grenfell says self-management is vital for someone living with asthma. 

“It’s very important that even small children are involved in how they manage their asthma,” says Dr Grenfell.

It’s also crucial asthma medication is used properly.

“A lot of it comes from the use of the spray and your GP, a pharmacist or an asthma nurse can have a look at your technique to work out if you’re using it correctly,” says Dr Grenfell.

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