There's currently no cure for asthma, but treatment can help control the symptoms so you're able to live a normal, active life.
Inhalers, which are devices that let you breathe in medicine, are the main treatment. Tablets and other treatments may also be needed if your asthma is severe.
You'll usually create a personal action plan with a doctor or asthma nurse.
This includes information about your medicines, how to monitor your condition and what to do if you have an asthma attack.
Inhalers can help:
- relieve symptoms when they occur (reliever inhalers)
- stop symptoms developing (preventer inhalers)
Some people need an inhaler that does both (combination inhalers).
Talk to your doctor or asthma nurse about the right inhaler for you. You can visit Asthma + Lung UK for more information on inhaler choices.
Read on to learn more about the different types of inhaler.
Most people with asthma will be given a reliever inhaler. These are usually blue.
You use a reliever inhaler to treat your symptoms when they occur. They should relieve your symptoms within a few minutes.
Tell a GP or asthma nurse if you have to use your reliever inhaler 3 or more times a week. They may suggest additional treatment, such as a preventer inhaler.
Reliever inhalers have few side effects, but they can sometimes cause shaking or a fast heartbeat for a few minutes after they're used.
If you need to use a reliever inhaler often, you may also need a preventer inhaler.
You use a preventer inhaler every day to reduce the inflammation and sensitivity of your airways, which stops your symptoms occurring. It's important to use it even when you do not have symptoms.
Speak to a GP or asthma nurse if you continue to have symptoms while using a preventer inhaler.
Preventer inhalers contain steroid medicine.
They do not usually have side effects, but can sometimes cause:
- a fungal infection of the mouth or throat (oral thrush)
- a hoarse voice
- a sore throat
You can help prevent these side effects by using a spacer, which is a hollow plastic tube you attach to your inhaler, as well as by rinsing your mouth after using your inhaler.
If using reliever and preventer inhalers does not control your asthma, you may need an inhaler that combines both.
Combination inhalers are used every day to help stop symptoms occurring and provide long-lasting relief if they do occur.
It's important to use it regularly, even if you do not have symptoms.
Side effects of combination inhalers are similar to those of reliever and preventer inhalers.
Disposing of your inhalers
Inhalers should not be thrown away in household waste. Take them to a pharmacy to be disposed of.
You may also need to take tablets if using an inhaler alone is not helping control your symptoms.
Leukotriene receptor antagonists (LTRAs)
LTRAs are the main tablets used for asthma. They also come in syrup and powder form.
You take them every day to help stop your symptoms occurring.
Possible side effects include tummy aches and headaches.
Theophylline may also be recommended if other treatments are not helping to control your symptoms.
It's taken every day to stop your symptoms occurring.
Possible side effects include headaches and feeling sick.
Steroid tablets may be recommended if other treatments are not helping to control your symptoms.
They can be taken either:
- as an immediate treatment when you have an asthma attack
- every day as a long-term treatment to prevent symptoms – this is usually only necessary if you have very severe asthma and inhalers do not control your symptoms
Long-term or frequent use of steroid tablets can occasionally cause side effects such as:
- increased appetite, leading to weight gain
- easy bruising
- mood changes
- fragile bones (osteoporosis)
- high blood pressure
You'll be monitored regularly while taking steroid tablets to check for signs of any problems.
Other treatments, such as injections or surgery, are rarely needed, but may be recommended if all other treatments are not helping.
For some people with severe asthma, injections of medicines called biologic therapies are given every few weeks. These can help to control the symptoms.
They are not suitable for everyone with asthma and can only be prescribed by an asthma specialist.
The main side effect is discomfort where the injection is given.
A procedure called bronchial thermoplasty may be offered as a treatment for severe asthma. It works well and there are no serious concerns about its safety.
You will be sedated or put to sleep using a general anaesthetic during a bronchial thermoplasty.
It involves passing a thin, flexible tube down your throat and into your lungs. Heat is then used on the muscles around the airways to help stop them narrowing and causing asthma symptoms.
Several complementary therapies have been suggested as possible treatments for asthma, including:
- breathing exercises – such as techniques called the Papworth method and the Buteyko method
- traditional Chinese herbal medicine
- ionisers – devices that use an electric current to charge molecules of air
- manual therapies – such as chiropractic
- dietary supplements
There's little evidence to suggest many of these treatments help.
There's some evidence that breathing exercises can improve symptoms and reduce the need for reliever medicines in some people, but they should not be used instead of your medicine.
If you seem to have occupational asthma, where your asthma is linked to your job, you'll be referred to a specialist to confirm the diagnosis.
If your employer has an occupational health service, they should also be informed, along with your health and safety officer.
Your employer has a responsibility to protect you from the causes of occupational asthma.
It may sometimes be possible to:
- substitute or remove the substance that's triggering your asthma from your workplace
- redeploy you to another role within the company
- provide you with protective breathing equipment#
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Page last reviewed: 19 April 2021
Next review due: 19 April 2024