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Asthma Rescue Medicine: Keep it With You!

Your inhaler medicine can halt an asthma attack in its tracks. You should never leave home without it.

woman using an inhaler

When an asthma attack hits, muscles around your airways tighten. Suddenly it can be hard to breathe. You need quick help to get your airways relaxed and open again. This type of asthma episode usually calls for “quick-relief” medications sometimes called rescue medications or rescue inhalers.

Quick-relief meds are different from the asthma control medication you likely take each day. Control medication offers long-term treatment of the inflammation and swelling from asthma. Control meds can help you manage symptoms over the long haul. Control medications may also take hours to many days for the full effect.

But even well-controlled asthma can flare up. When an attack occurs, that’s when you reach for your quick-relief medicine. These meds are typically taken through an inhaler or aerosol machine. Quick relief or rescue medications work immediately or within minutes. And since flare-ups can be hard to predict, you should always keep your quick-relief inhaler medication with you.

Not for daily use

Quick-relief medicine is only to be used when you are having symptoms. (Note: For some people, the doctor may also recommend they use quick-relief medications before exercising to prevent exercise-induced asthma.) Your signs might be coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or tightness in the chest. Rescue medicine is not for long-term control. It is not for daily use. If you’re using it more than two days a week, talk to your doctor about reviewing your asthma action plan.

To minimize asthma attacks, it helps to be aware of and avoid your asthma triggers. Common things that can set off a reaction include:

  • Pets and pet dander
  • Dust and dust mites
  • Pollen and mold
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Air pollution or smoke from fires

Different people have different allergies and triggers. Small changes at your home or office can cause a reaction. Other triggers are stress and getting sick with a cold or flu, sinus infection or acid reflux.

If exercise tends to bring on an asthma attack, talk to your doctor about ways to manage it. Everyone needs physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle. People with asthma are no exception. The doctor may suggest medicines to help you exercise safely.

In case of emergency

If you find yourself in distress and can’t reach anyone by telephone right away, seek emergency help immediately. If you’re so out of breath that it’s hard to walk or talk, or if your lips or fingernails turn blue or gray, call 911. Getting urgent care could save your life.

People live full and active lives with asthma. Work with your doctor to learn what treatment and management plan works best for you. And keep your quick-relief meds close at all times.

By Ginny Greene, Contributing Editor

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Expert panel report 3 (EPR3): Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of asthma. Accessed: November 30, 2015.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How is asthma treated and controlled? Accessed: November 30, 2015.
American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. Asthma. Accessed: November 30, 2015.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma. Common asthma triggers. Accessed: November 30, 2015.

Last Updated: November 30, 2015