If you have asthma, there's a good chance that an underlying allergy—whether it's to dust mites, pollen, cockroaches, or cat dander—is playing a key role in your breathing problems. (About 60% to 90% of people with asthma have allergic asthma.)
The first step is to avoid the allergen, but that's not always possible or sufficient to stop symptoms, like coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
That's where medication comes in. Here are some common drugs used to treat allergic asthma.
Inhaled corticosteroids are one of the most important therapies for any asthma, including allergic asthma.
"These are the gold standard and they work by basically blocking the inflammation response in the lungs," says Mitchell H. Grayson, MD, associate professor of pediatrics, medicine, microbiology, and molecular genetics at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
Known as "controller" medications, they take a few days to work—so they aren't for short-term symptom control.
Leukotriene receptor antagonists
These drugs, like Singulair (montelukast sodium), can treat allergic asthma because they inhibit an inflammation-causing chemical released by the immune system. However, they can also treat non-allergic asthma too, says Jill Poole, MD, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
The pros are that they come in pill form and they have few side effects. The drawback is that the effect is generally mild. "If you have mild persistent or mild intermittent asthma, sometimes they will work quite well," Dr. Mitchell says.
Short-acting beta agonists
You know these inhalers—every asthmatic in the movies carries one to take an occasional puff. Known as "rescue medications," these drugs act within minutes to quickly resolve symptoms.
"We warn everyone who has asthma to carry one of these," says Dr. Poole.
Albuterol and related medications such as Maxair (pirbuterol) are bronchodilators, meaning they work by relaxing the airways. These drugs shouldn't be used frequently (1-2 times a week or less). People with exercise-induced asthma can use one 20 minutes before working out to prevent problems, Dr. Mitchell says.
Long-acting beta agonists
People who find themselves using rescue medications on a frequent basis may need to switch to long-acting beta agonists, which can be effective for 12 hours or more, says Dr. Poole.
Common products include Advair (a combination of the beta agonist fluticasone and the steroid salmeterol) and Symbicort (a combination of the beta agonist formoterol and the steroid budesonide). A combination formulation (a beta agonist plus a steroid) is important as long-acting beta agonists on their own can worsen asthma.
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