What Do Short Acting Asthma Medications Do to Help My Asthma?


How and when should you use your short acting asthma medication? Is there such a thing as “too much of a good thing” when it comes to these medications? Your doctor should prescribe exactly how she wants you to use your inhaler, also called a “rescue inhaler.” To answer the second question, yes, using your rescue medication too frequently can lead to unintended side effects. Overuse may also indicate your asthma is not well-controlled.

Description of Short Acting Medications for Asthma

The short acting asthma medications available for doctors to prescribe work to reverse the symptoms of an asthma attack. Small children and elderly patients who cannot coordinate their actions to use the medications properly can still get needed relief from liquid solutions administered through a nebulizer, which is a small electric compressor to which tubing and a medicine cup have been attached, writes the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

When these medications are used in the prescribed dosage and manner, they are very effective, providing quick relief when an attack begins. Because you don’t know when you’ll have an asthma attack, you should get into the habit of carrying an inhaler with you at all times, either in your purse, briefcase or pants pocket. [1] The inhalers are small, generally less than three inches high. The plastic casing, or actuator, is manufactured with a space for the medication vial, which has a tube at one end. When you insert the vial into the actuator and press it down, it presses the tube, releasing the medication in a fine spray –– the process is the same as pressing the top of a can of air freshener.

The Medications

Some of the short acting medications for asthma treatment include Proventil, Ventolin, ProAir and Maxair. [1]

The Mayo Clinic includes Albuterol, which includes Ventolin, AccuNeb and other medications, Levalbuterol, or Xopenex and Pirbuterol (the Maxair Autohaler). If your asthma symptoms develop infrequently or are mild, using of one of these medications alone can help manage symptoms easily.

Other short acting medications include Ipratropium or Atrovent. It is usually used for treating chronic bronchitis or emphysema, but doctors do prescribe this medication to treat asthma. It can be used alongside a short acting beta agonist like Albuterol or as an alternative.

If your symptoms are more severe or persistent, you may need to add another type of asthma medication to your treatment plan to achieve better symptom control, advises the Mayo Clinic. You should not be using your short acting inhaler on a regular basis. If you find yourself using your rescue inhaler more frequently than your doctor prescribes, your asthma has gotten out of control, which increases your risk of a more serious attack. [2]

How the Medications Work

Short acting asthma medications act on the muscle bands that surround your airways by quickly relaxing them while an asthma attack is in progress. These medications are also effective in helping to open your airways, making it much easier for you to breathe. They don’t do anything to relieve or stop swelling (inflammation) of your airways; if this makes it harder for you to breathe even though you are using your rescue inhaler, your condition is not controlled.

The rescue inhalers work to relieve asthma symptoms quickly once an attack has started; they are short-acting, meaning the effects don’t last for more than a few hours; they relax the bands of muscle around your airways; and they should not be used more than twice in one week. [1]


[1] Short-Acting Beta Agonists. Palo Alto Medical Foundation, retrieved at https://www.pamf.org/asthma/medications/inhaled/shortacting.html

[2] Mayo Clinic Staff. Asthma Medications: Know Your Options. Mayo Clinic. June 2010, retrieved at https://www.mayoclinic.com/health/asthma-medications/AP00008