Treating an Asthma Attack - Rescue Medications

If you have sudden symptoms of asthma that get worse over time, you could be having an asthma attack. Asthma attacks can cause shortness of breath, cough, wheezing, and chest tightness. They can be mild or severe and can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days.1

Your doctor may use other words for asthma attacks, like flare-up, episode, or exacerbation.

When asthma attacks happen, your doctor may tell you to use a rescue medication to relieve your symptoms. This is different from your daily controller medicines, which you need to take every day.2

Using your asthma action plan

It is important to treat an asthma attack as soon as you can. You can often do this yourself by taking the rescue medicine your doctor prescribed. This is usually an inhaler.1

If you think your asthma attack was caused by something like exercise, cold air, or an irritant, stop what you are doing and go somewhere safe.1

Use your controller and rescue medicine exactly as your doctor prescribed. Then, follow your asthma action plan to decide what to do next. It may include instructions to use your peak flow meter. If your peak flow is below 50 percent, call 911 right away. If you have any questions or if your symptoms do not improve, call your doctor immediately.1

If you are at high risk of a severe or fatal asthma attack, find medical help immediately after using your rescue medication.1

Types of rescue medications used to treat an asthma attack

Short-acting beta agonists (SABAs)

Short-acting beta agonists (SABAs) are the most effective and most common treatment for asthma attacks. SABAs work quickly to relax the muscles around the airways. They can be used as a rescue drug for an asthma attack or before exercise to prevent exercise-induced asthma.1,2

There are 2 types of SABAs: albuterol and levalbuterol.3

After using a SABA, it is normal to feel shaky or like your heart is beating quickly. This is common, and these feelings should decrease as your body gets used to the drug.2

If your doctor prescribes a SABA as a rescue drug, be sure to use it exactly as they tell you to. However, if you find yourself using it more often than prescribed, tell your doctor. This may be a sign that your asthma is not well controlled.2

Short-acting anticholinergics

Short-acting anticholinergics, such as Atrovent (ipratropium), are approved to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, your doctor may recommend using a short-acting anticholinergic with a SABA during an asthma attack to reduce the risk of being admitted to the hospital.2,4

Your mouth may feel dry after using this type of drug.2

Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids are medicines that reduce inflammation. These medicines include methylprednisolone, dexamethasone, prednisolone, and prednisone.1

Corticosteroids are sometimes prescribed to people having severe asthma attacks, and can be taken by mouth, through an injection, or intravenously (through an IV). This treatment often lasts 5 to 7 days.2

Corticosteroids can cause side effects. When used for a short time, side effects include:2

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Increased appetite
  • High blood sugar
  • Mood changes
  • The short-term effects of corticosteroids usually get better once you stop taking the medicine. However, taking corticosteroids for a long time can cause more serious side effects, including:1

  • Cataracts
  • Glaucoma
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Adrenal suppression
  • Osteoporosis
  • Magnesium

    If you are treated at the hospital for an asthma attack, you may be given IV magnesium. This treatment is used for life-threatening asthma attacks when other treatments have not worked.1

    Long-acting beta-2 agonists (LABAs)

    Some people with asthma are prescribed a long-acting beta2 agonist (LABA) in a combination inhaler therapy with an inhaled corticosteroid.2

    No matter which asthma rescue medication you are prescribed, always use it exactly as your doctor tells you to. It is also important to follow your asthma action plan if you feel like you are having an asthma attack. If you are not sure what to do during an asthma attack, talk to your doctor so you can be well prepared.

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    Written by: Sarah O'Brien and Rebecca Finkel | Last Reviewed: March 2021.