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What's the difference between the different kinds of asthma medications?


There are eight general types of medications used to treat asthma. Some are considered long-term control medications; they are used daily to prevent asthma symptoms and attacks. Others are quick-relief medications, used in the event of an asthma attack.

Long-term control medication controls inflammation and swelling in the lungs' airways. Patients are directed to take this type of medication every day-even if they are feeling fine. There are six types of these drugs:

  • Inhaled corticosteroids are considered the most powerful long-term control therapy. Examples are QVAR® (beclomethasone), and Flovent® (fluticasone) inhalers.
  • Oral corticosteroids are usually prescribed for patients with severe persistent asthma or who experience acute asthma attacks. Examples include prednisone and methylprednisone tablets.
  • Mast cell stabilizers are used to prevent exercise-induced asthma. An example is Intal® (cromolyn).
  • Long-acting beta 2 agonists relax and open bronchial tubes. An example is Foradil® (formoteral). A combination drug that both relaxes and opens airways, and reduces inflammation is Advair® (salmeterol and fluticasone).
  • Theophylline relaxes airways and may prevent inflammation.
  • Anti-leukotriene agents are a relatively new class of long-term control drugs. These include Accolate® (zafirlukast) and Singulair® (montelukast).

Quick-relief medications are for use during an asthma attack. Unlike long-term control medications, they do not reduce inflammation. Instead, they relax and open airways to increase airflow.

  • Short-acting beta agonists include inhaled drugs such as Proventil® (albuterol).
  • Atrovent® (ipratropium) often is prescribed for patients who cannot tolerate beta-agonist side effects.

If you are being treated for asthma, be sure you understand when to use your medications. If your current asthma treatment does not include a long-acting medication, discuss with your physician if one is right for you.

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Answers to questions regarding information about medications or health conditions are not for diagnostic or treatment purposes and are not conclusive as to the presence or absence of any health condition. Consult your physician for diagnosis and treatment of your medical condition. The information provided is not a substitute for medical advice. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of the scientific literature may vary. Walgreens' terms of use and general warranty disclaimer apply to all services provided. If you are in need of immediate medical attention, contact your physician, poison control center or emergency medical professional. If you need to speak with a pharmacist for non-emergency matters, contact your local Walgreens pharmacist or call a pharmacist toll-free at 1 (877) 250-5823.

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