Treatment - Asthma

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 – 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 your 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

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).

Reliever inhalers

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 your 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.

Asthma UK has more information on reliever inhalers.

Preventer inhalers

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 don't have symptoms.

Speak to your GP or asthma nurse if you continue to have symptoms while using a preventer inhaler.

Preventer inhalers contain steroid medicine. They don't usually have side effects but can sometimes cause:

You can help prevent these side effects by using a spacer– a hollow plastic tube you attach to your inhaler – as well as by rinsing your mouth or cleaning your teeth after using your inhaler.

Asthma UK has more information on preventer inhalers.

Combination inhalers

If using reliever and preventer inhalers doesn't 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 don't have symptoms.

Side effects of combination inhalers are similar to those of reliever and preventer inhalers.

Asthma UK has more information on combination inhalers.

Tablets

You may also need to take tablets if using an inhaler alone isn't 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.

Asthma UK has more information on LTRAs.

Theophylline

Theophylline may also be recommended if other treatments aren't helping to control your symptoms.

It's taken every day to stop your symptoms occurring.

Possible side effects include headaches and feeling sick.

Asthma UK has more information on theophylline.

Steroid tablets

Steroid tablets may be recommended if other treatments aren't 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 don't control your symptoms

Long-term or frequent use of steroid tablets can occasionally cause side effects such as:

You'll be monitored regularly while taking steroid tablets to check for signs of any problems.

Asthma UK has more information on steroid tablets.

Other treatments

Other treatments, such as injections or surgery, are rarely needed but may be recommended if all other treatments aren't helping.

Injections

For some people with severe asthma, injections given every few weeks can help control the symptoms.

The main injections for asthma are:

  • omalizumab (Xolair)
  • mepolizumab (Nucala)
  • reslizumab (Cinqaero)

These medicines aren't 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.

Asthma UK has more information on Xolair and new treatments for severe asthma.

Surgery

A procedure called bronchial thermoplasty is very occasionally used as a treatment for severe asthma.

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.

There's some evidence to suggest this may reduce asthma attacks, but it's a relatively new treatment and the long-term effects aren't yet fully understood.

Asthma UK has more information on bronchial thermoplasty.

Complementary therapies

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
  • acupuncture
  • ionisers – devices that use an electric current to charge molecules of air
  • manual therapies – such as chiropractic
  • homeopathy
  • 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 shouldn't be used instead of your medicine.

Asthma UK has more information on complementary therapies for asthma.

Page last reviewed: 19/02/2018
Next review due: 19/02/2021