Big Fancy Asthma Words

The asthma world can be downright confusing at times, especially for the newly diagnosed. Even for people who have had asthma for decades, the lexicon surrounding asthma can be easily overwhelming.  Below I chose just a few of the medical terms that are often times used in asthma and I will give a brief definition of what they mean.


The alveoli are the teeny tiny air sacs in the lungs.  When oxygen is inhaled it passes through the alveoli into the bloodstream and then carbon dioxide that is in the blood passes from the alveoli into the lungs and is exhaled out of the body.


An anticholinergic medication blocks the nerve action of acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter.  They reduce spasms of smooth muscles, such as the smooth muscle within the lungs.  A couple examples of anticholinergic medications are Ipratropium Bromide (Atrovent), and Tiotropium Bromide (Spiriva).


Biologics are injectable medications that are created in a laboratory.  They are a “newer” asthma therapy, meaning they have been around for the past 20 years.  They are most often given to asthmatics whose asthma is allergic in nature.


Inside our lungs, the air tubes are like a very large tree.  The branches split multiple times all the way down from your right and left mainstem bronchus to the bronchioles.  The bronchioles are the smallest branches and connect to the alveoli.


Almost all asthmatics have prescribed a bronchodilator. A bronchodilator is a medication that dilates the air passages in the lungs and increases the airflow which makes it easier to breathe.  During an asthma attack, your lungs constrict and a bronchodilator helps to relax them, allowing you to take a deeper breath.

Bronchospasm/ Bronchoconstriction

When your asthma is flaring the smooth muscles inside the airways tightens, thus causing narrowing of your airways.  This causes that tightening feeling in the chest, shortness of breath and wheezing.


Corticosteroids are a type of medication that reduces the inflammation within the lungs (and also other areas of the body).  These medications, which are man-made, mimic cortisol which is a naturally produced hormone in your body.  For asthma, there are inhaled corticosteroids which would be your preventer inhaler that is taken every day (such as Flovent, Qvar), and in combination preventers (such as Breo, Advair, and Dulera to name just a few); oral corticosteroids (such as prednisone); and injectable corticosteroids that are given in either a doctors office or the hospital (such as solumedrol or decadron).


These are certain types of white blood cells that help fight infections within the body.  In people with eosinophilic asthma, the eosinophil count in the blood is higher than normal and can lead to severe asthma symptoms.

Leukotriene modifiers

Leukotriene modifiers are medications that help treat and manage allergies and allergic rhinitis.  They are also used to treat asthma, more commonly when asthma is allergy driven.  An example is Montelukast (Singulair).

Long-acting beta agonists (LABA)

I LABA’s are bronchodilators that open the airways and last up to 12 hours.  They take a little while longer to take effect than a SABA.  A couple examples of LABA medications are Salmeterol (Serevent) and Formoterol (Performist).  LABA medications should always be taken with an inhaled corticosteroid.  There are many combinations of LABA/corticosteroid inhalers, including Advair, Symbicort, Dulera and Breo.

Short-acting beta agonists (SABA)

SABA’s are also known as quick relief or rescue asthma medications.  These are most often found in an inhaler and/or nebulizer form. Albuterol (ProAir, Ventolin, Proventil) and Levalbuterol (Xopenex) are both examples of SABA medications.  These work quickly, within 10-20 minutes of taking them.

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