There's currently no cure for asthma, but treatment can help control the symptoms so you're able to live a normal, active life.
Inhalers – devices that let you breathe in medicine – are the main treatment. Tablets and other treatments may also be needed if your asthma is severe.
You'll usually create a personal action plan with your doctor or asthma nurse. This includes information about your medicines, how to monitor your condition and what to do if you have an asthma attack.
Inhalers can help:
- relieve symptoms when they occur (reliever inhalers)
- stop symptoms developing (preventer inhalers)
Some people need an inhaler that does both (combination inhalers).
Watch a short video from Asthma UK to learn how to use your inhaler properly.
Read on to learn more about the different types of inhaler.
Most people with asthma will be given a reliever inhaler. These are usually blue.
You use a reliever inhaler to treat your symptoms when they occur. They should relieve your symptoms within a few minutes.
Tell your GP or asthma nurse if you have to use your reliever inhaler 3 or more times a week. They may suggest additional treatment, such as a preventer inhaler.
Reliever inhalers have few side effects, but they can sometimes cause shaking or a fast heartbeat for a few minutes after they're used.
Asthma UK has more information on reliever inhalers.
If you need to use a reliever inhaler often, you may also need a preventer inhaler.
You use a preventer inhaler every day to reduce the inflammation and sensitivity of your airways, which stops your symptoms occurring. It's important to use it even when you don't have symptoms.
Speak to your GP or asthma nurse if you continue to have symptoms while using a preventer inhaler.
Preventer inhalers contain steroid medicine. They don't usually have side effects but can sometimes cause:
- a fungal infection of the mouth or throat (oral thrush)
- a hoarse voice
- a sore throat
You can help prevent these side effects by using a spacer– a hollow plastic tube you attach to your inhaler – as well as by rinsing your mouth or cleaning your teeth after using your inhaler.
Asthma UK has more information on preventer inhalers.
If using reliever and preventer inhalers doesn't control your asthma, you may need an inhaler that combines both.
Combination inhalers are used every day to help stop symptoms occurring and provide long-lasting relief if they do occur.
It's important to use it regularly, even if you don't have symptoms.
Side effects of combination inhalers are similar to those of reliever and preventer inhalers.
Asthma UK has more information on combination inhalers.
You may also need to take tablets if using an inhaler alone isn't helping control your symptoms.
Leukotriene receptor antagonists (LTRAs)
LTRAs are the main tablets used for asthma. They also come in syrup and powder form.
You take them every day to help stop your symptoms occurring.
Possible side effects include tummy aches and headaches.
Asthma UK has more information on LTRAs.
Theophylline may also be recommended if other treatments aren't helping to control your symptoms.
It's taken every day to stop your symptoms occurring.
Possible side effects include headaches and feeling sick.
Asthma UK has more information on theophylline.
Steroid tablets may be recommended if other treatments aren't helping to control your symptoms.
They can be taken either:
- as an immediate treatment when you have an asthma attack
- every day as a long-term treatment to prevent symptoms – this is usually only necessary if you have very severe asthma and inhalers don't control your symptoms
Long-term or frequent use of steroid tablets can occasionally cause side effects such as:
- increased appetite, leading to weight gain
- easy bruising
- mood changes
- fragile bones (osteoporosis)
- high blood pressure
You'll be monitored regularly while taking steroid tablets to check for signs of any problems.
Asthma UK has more information on steroid tablets.
Other treatments, such as injections or surgery, are rarely needed but may be recommended if all other treatments aren't helping.
For some people with severe asthma, injections given every few weeks can help control the symptoms.
The main injections for asthma are:
- omalizumab (Xolair)
- mepolizumab (Nucala)
- reslizumab (Cinqaero)
These medicines aren't suitable for everyone with asthma and can only be prescribed by an asthma specialist.
The main side effect is discomfort where the injection is given.
A procedure called bronchial thermoplasty may be offered as a treatment for severe asthma. It works well and there are no serious concerns about its safety.
You will be sedated or put to sleep using a general anaesthetic during a bronchial thermoplasty. It involves passing a thin, flexible tube down your throat and into your lungs. Heat is then used on the muscles around the airways to help stop them narrowing and causing asthma symptoms.
Asthma UK has more information on bronchial thermoplasty.
Several complementary therapies have been suggested as possible treatments for asthma, including:
- breathing exercises – such as techniques called the Papworth method and the Buteyko method
- traditional Chinese herbal medicine
- ionisers – devices that use an electric current to charge molecules of air
- manual therapies – such as chiropractic
- dietary supplements
There's little evidence to suggest many of these treatments help.
There's some evidence that breathing exercises can improve symptoms and reduce the need for reliever medicines in some people, but they shouldn't be used instead of your medicine.
If you seem to have occupational asthma, where your asthma is linked to your job, you'll be referred to a specialist to confirm the diagnosis.
If your employer has an occupational health service, they should also be informed, along with your health and safety officer.
Your employer has a responsibility to protect you from the causes of occupational asthma. It may sometimes be possible to:
- substitute or remove the substance that's triggering your asthma from your workplace
- redeploy you to another role within the company
- provide you with protective breathing equipment
Want to know more?
Over-the-counter treatments listed on this page are available at your local pharmacy. Find your closest pharmacy below.