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What to Do When Asthma Medications Do Not Work

written by: Suzanne S. Wiley • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 3/4/2011

Learn about what to do when asthma medications do not work and what could cause the different types of medications to become ineffective. Find out ways to prevent medications failing due to human error.

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    Introduction

    An asthma attack can feel like a sudden block in your lungs that won’t let you breathe, or it can be a slow, creeping constriction that steadily becomes worse. In either situation, you want your lungs to open up as quickly as possible. Your asthma medication should be enough to stop the attack, but sometimes you may find yourself still battling the constriction for air. When asthma medications do not work, panic can set in. As with other life-threatening situations, you need to call emergency services immediately if you can’t get any relief from your inhaler. When you’re better, try to evaluate what went wrong.

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    Types of Medications

    All asthma medication falls into one of two groups. Rescue medications are those you use when you’re either in the midst of an attack or feel one about to start. Maintenance or controller medications are those meant to calm your system overall, so that you don’t even start to have an attack. Maintenance medications are usually a daily affair, while rescue medications may be used as needed or on a regular basis, depending on what your doctor decides.

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    Maintenance Medications

    What to do if your medication isn’t working varies. If the maintenance medication isn’t preventing your asthma from flaring up, talk to your doctor about what might be going on. Some maintenance medications take a few weeks to start working properly, so if the medication is new, it may just be a matter of time. For that situation you’d have to figure out a temporary plan with your doctor regarding how to handle the waiting time. It could also be that you aren’t taking the maintenance medication correctly. Find out if you have to take it at the same time every day, or, if it’s an inhaled medication instead of a pill, if you are using the inhaler correctly, as some have very specific procedures that you must follow to ensure you get the full dose. Finally, it is always possible that the maintenance medication you have just isn’t the right one for you, in which case you and your doctor need to find a better one. Do not stop taking an asthma medication without your doctor’s approval, though.

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    Rescue Medications

    Not being able to get relief from your rescue medication is obviously dangerous -- it’s called rescue medication for a reason. At this point, if you have an asthma attack and can’t stop it with your inhaler, call 911 or the local emergency services number if you are traveling outside the United States. Unofficial remedies abound, but get the okay from the emergency services personnel before using any you might have heard of. Follow all instructions you’re given while waiting for paramedics.

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    Precautions

    Try to minimize the risk of your medication not working due to human error. Ensure your asthma inhaler is primed and ready to use. Priming not only shows the inhaler spray mechanism is working, but it prevents any bits of medicine that may have dried on the outside of the spray hole from shooting into your lungs when you next use the inhaler. Each brand of inhaler, even the generic types, will have its own recommended priming schedule. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation warns that a “float" test, floating the medication canister in water to see how much is left, will actually harm the canister, so keep the inhaler dry. Clean the plastic mouthpiece according to manufacturer directions. If you are having trouble using the inhaler, ask your doctor about nebulizers or spacers, which are attachments that make it easier to take inhaled medications. Do what you can to identify and avoid triggers, too. If you have asthma attacks in response to an allergen, having too much of the allergen around could potentially overpower your medication.