Long-term control (maintenance) medications are taken on a regular basis to prevent asthma attacks, control inflammation in the airways, and manage chronic symptoms.
Corticosteroids, also called glucocorticoids or steroids, are powerful anti-inflammatory drugs. Steroids are not bronchodilators (they do not relax the airways) and have little short-term effect on symptoms. Instead, they work over time to reduce inflammation and prevent permanent injury in the lungs. They can also help prevent asthma attacks from occurring.
Taking a corticosteroid drug through an inhaler provides effective local anti-inflammatory activity in the lungs with very few side effects elsewhere in the body. (By contrast, steroids taken by mouth have considerable side effects throughout the body.) Inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) are recommended as the primary therapy for any patient needing long-term control medications for persistent asthma.
The most recent generation of inhaled steroids include beclomethasone (QVAR), budesonide (Pulmicort), ciclesonide (Alvesco), flunisolide (AeroBid), fluticasone (Flovent), mometasone furoate (Asmanex), and triamcinolone (Azmacort and others). These steroids are sometimes combined with a long-acting beta2-agonist in a single inhaler, such as budesonide-formoterol (Symbicort), fluticasone-salmeterol (Advair), or mometasone-formoterol (Dulera). Optimal timing of the dose is important and may vary depending on the medication.
Inhaled steroids are generally considered safe and effective and only rarely cause any of the more serious side effects associated with prolonged use of oral steroids. The following are possible side effects of inhaled steroids:
- Throat irritation, hoarseness, and dry mouth (the most common side effects). Using a spacer device and rinsing the mouth after each treatment can minimize or prevent these effects.
- Rashes, wheezing, facial swelling (edema), fungal infections (thrush) in the mouth and throat, and bruising are also possible but not common with inhalators.
- Inhaled corticosteroids are associated with a higher risk for cataracts in patients over age 40, particularly with higher dosages. (No higher risk is observed in younger people.)
- Some studies report a higher risk for bone loss in patients who take inhaled steroids regularly, a side effect known to occur with oral steroids.
Long-acting beta2-agonists (LABAs) are bronchodilator drugs that help to open and relax the airways. Unlike the short-acting Beta2-agonists used for rescue medication, LABAs are used for long-term asthma control. They are not used for treating attack symptoms.
LABAs should never be used alone in the treatment of asthma in adults or children. They can be dangerous when used alone, because they can mask asthma symptoms, and they can increase the risk of asthma death unless paired with an inhaled steroid. LABAs should only be used in combination with another control medication, such as an inhaled corticosteroid. LABAs should be used for the shortest time possible, and should only be used by patients whose asthma is not adequately controlled by other asthma maintenance medications.
Salmeterol-fluticasone (Advair), formoterol-budesonide (Symbicort), and formoterol-mometasone (Dulera) are long-acting beta2 agonists products combined with a steroid in a single inhaler that are used for treatment of moderate-to-severe asthma. The LABA-only versions of these drugs are salmeterol (Serevent Diskus) and formoterol (Foradil Aerolizer).
Doctors are still trying to determine when long-acting beta2-agonists should be added to, or removed from, an asthma treatment plan. If your symptoms do not improve or if symptoms worsen with this type of drug, your doctor will recommend discontinuing it. Do not, however, stop taking this drug or other asthma medications without first talking with your doctor.
Leukotriene antagonists (also called anti-leukotrienes or leukotriene modifiers) are pills that block leukotrienes. Leukotrienes are powerful immune system factors that, in excess, produce damaging chemicals that can cause inflammation and spasms in the airways of people with asthma. As with other anti-inflammatory drugs, leukotrienes are used for prevention, NOT for treating acute asthma attacks.
Leukotriene antagonists include montelukast (Singulair, generic), zafirlukast (Accolate, generic), and zileuton (Zyflo). These drugs may be used as second-line treatment for asthma control and are sometimes used for preventing exercise-induced asthma.
Side Effects and Complications. Upset stomach, headache, and sore throat are the most common side effects of leukotriene antagonists. Because these drugs can raise liver enzyme levels, patients may need periodic liver tests.
In rare cases, leukotriene antagonists may cause mental health disturbances and behavioral changes. Mood problems include agitation, aggression, anxiousness, dream abnormalities, hallucinations, depression, insomnia, irritability, restlessness, tremor, and suicidal thinking. Patients who take a leukotriene antagonist drug should be monitored for signs of behavioral and mood changes. Doctors should consider discontinuing the drug if patients exhibit any of these symptoms.
Omalizumab (Xolair) is FDA-approved for patients age 12 and older who have moderate-to-severe persistent asthma related to allergies. Omalizumab is a biologic drug that targets and blocks the antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE), a chemical trigger of the inflammatory events associated with an allergic asthma attack.
Omalizumab is given by injection every 2 - 4 weeks. It is used only to treat patients who have moderate-to-severe persistent asthma related to allergies whose symptoms are not controlled by inhaled corticosteroids.
Side Effects and Complications. About 1 in 1,000 patients who take omalizumab develop anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction). Patients can develop anaphylaxis after any dose of omalizumab, even if they had no reaction to a first dose. Anaphylaxis may occur up to 24 hours after the dose is given.
Omalizumab should always be injected in a doctor's office, and health care providers should observe patients for at least 2 hours after an injection. Patients should also carry emergency self-treatment for anaphylaxis (such as an Epi-Pen) and know how to use it. With an Epi-Pen, or similar auto-injector device, patients can quickly give themselves a life-saving dose of epinephrine.
Anaphylaxis symptoms include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest tightness
- Itching and hives
- Swelling of the mouth and throat
The FDA is currently reviewing whether omalizumab may be associated with increased risk for heart and vascular problems (ischemic heart disease, arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy, heart failure, pulmonary hypertension, and blood clots).
Theophylline is a bronchodilator drug. It relaxes the muscles around the bronchioles and also stimulates breathing. Since the introduction of inhaled corticosteroids and long-acting beta2-agonists, theophylline is not used as often for asthma treatment. It may still be used in some circumstances, such as for treating severe or nocturnal asthma. Theophylline is available in tablet, liquid, and injectable forms. Theophylline should not be used by people with peptic ulcers or GERD, and should be used with caution by anyone with heart disease, liver disease, high blood pressure, or seizure disorders.