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Asthma Rescue Medications

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023

Rescue medicines work fast to provide relief during an asthma attack. They are sometimes also called quick-relief drugs. They should only be used as needed when you have sudden worsening symptoms or if needed before exercise. This is different from your daily long-term control medicines.1

Your doctor will help you create an asthma action plan. This will help you know which quick-relief drug to use during an asthma attack. It will also tell you when to get emergency help. Needing to use quick-relief medicines too often is a sign that your symptoms are not well-controlled. Your doctor can help decide whether to step up your daily control medicines.2

Types of quick-relief asthma drugs

There are several different types of quick-relief drugs used to treat asthma attacks.

Short-acting beta-agonists (SABAs)

SABAs are the most common quick-relief asthma drug. They work quickly to relax the muscles around your airways. Examples of SABAs are:1

  • Proair® Respiclick (albuterol)
  • Proair® Digihaler (albuterol)
  • Proventil® HFA (albuterol)
  • Ventolin® HFA (albuterol)
  • Accuneb® (albuterol)
  • Xopenex® HFA (levalbuterol)

Generic versions are also available. Overusing SABAs (more than daily) increases the risk of future asthma attacks. Reducing or avoiding SABAs is a major goal in asthma management.3

Low-dose inhaled corticosteroid (ICS) combinations

Another quick-relief option is a low-dose ICS with a long-acting beta-agonist (LABA) combination. Corticosteroids (steroids) work by reducing inflammation.1,3,4

Low-dose ICS-formoterol lowers the risk of future asthma attacks by two-thirds, compared to SABA-only. Examples of ICS-formoterol combinations are:3,5

  • Dulera® (mometasone furoate/formoterol fumarate)
  • Symbicort® (budesonide/formoterol fumarate)
  • Breyna® (generic version of Symbicort)

If you take daily ICS-formoterol for long-term control, then you can use the same inhaler for quick relief. This is called “single maintenance and reliever therapy” (SMART). If you take daily ICS with a different LABA, you cannot take ICS-formoterol for quick relief.3,6,7

Another approach is to take a low-dose ICS whenever you take a SABA for quick relief.3

Short-acting muscarinic antagonists (SAMAs)

SAMAs are another option for SABAs. SAMAs are also called short-acting anticholinergics. These relax airway muscles to make it easier to breathe. But they work slower than other options.3,7

An example of a SAMA is Atrovent® HFA (ipratropium). An example of a SAMA-SABA combination is Combivent Respimat® (ipratropium and albuterol). Your doctor may prescribe using these drugs if your asthma is not well controlled on another type of inhaler.7

Oral and intravenous steroids

In addition to being inhaled, steroids can be taken by mouth or injected (intravenously or IV). Oral and IV steroids are only used for a short time to treat severe symptoms. These can cause serious side effects when used long-term. Examples of steroids given for asthma symptoms include:1

  • Prednisone Intensol® (prednisone)
  • Rayos® (prednisone)
  • Medrol® (methylprednisolone)
  • Depo-Medrol® (methylprednisolone)
  • Solu-Medrol® (methylprednisolone)
  • Orapred ODT® (prednisolone)

Generic forms of these steroids are also available.

Using your asthma action plan

Talk to your doctor about creating an asthma action plan. An asthma action plan can help you use the right medicine depending on your situation. Some things to include in your plan are:2

  • When to use your quick-relief drug (and which one)
  • When to use your daily controller drug (and which one)
  • What triggers to avoid
  • How and when to monitor your lung function
  • When to call your doctor
  • When to get emergency help

Your asthma action plan may change over time. For example, you may need to increase or decrease the amount of a drug you take. Or you may have to switch to a different drug. Together, you and your doctor can make sure your asthma action plan is up-to-date.

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