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Treating asthma

There's no cure for asthma. But treatment can help control the symptoms so you're able to live a normal, active life.

Asthma is usually treated by using an inhaler. This a small device that you can use to breathe in medicines.

You might need tablets and other treatments if your asthma is severe.

You'll usually create an asthma action plan with your GP or asthma nurse.


The 2 main types of inhalers are:

  • reliever inhalers - to help relieve symptoms when they happen
  • preventer inhalers - to stop symptoms developing

Some people may need a combination inhaler. This is an inhaler that does both.

Watch videos on how to use different types of inhalers - asthma.ie

Reliever inhalers

Your reliever inhaler is usually blue. They help to open your airways when you're having an asthma attack. You should always carry it with you in case you need it.

Reliever inhalers work by relaxing your airways to make them wider, so that you can breathe during an asthma attack.

Talk to your GP if you need this inhaler more than 3 times a week. They might advise that you also use a preventer inhaler.

Your doctor will prescribe a reliever inhaler for you. You can get the inhaler in a pharmacy with a prescription.

Make sure you get a new prescription before your reliever inhaler runs out.

Some inhalers have a counter or an indicator to show how many doses are left. When these turn red, it’s time to get a new prescription.

Reliever inhalers do not have many side effects. But sometimes they can cause shaking or a fast heartbeat. This can happen for a few minutes after you've used them.

Steroid inhalers (preventer)

This inhaler is normally brown. You should always take your preventer inhaler as prescribed, even when you feel fine.

Most people need to take their preventer inhaler twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.

Preventer inhalers contain steroids. They work by reducing the inflammation in your airways.

A preventer inhaler will not work immediately. But over time it will help you avoid asthma attacks. It can take 2 weeks to work for adults. For children it can take 2 months.

These inhalers can cause side effects including:

  • a sore throat
  • oral thrush
  • a hoarse voice

You can help prevent these side effects by:

  • rinsing your mouth after using your inhaler
  • using a spacer

A spacer is a hollow plastic tube you attach to your inhaler. It holds the cloud of medicine in the tube long enough for you to inhale it in 1 or 2 slow, deep breaths.

Using a spacer will improve the amount of medicine that reaches your airways.

Combination inhalers

Combination inhalers combine 2 medicines in the 1 inhaler.

These types of inhalers both relax your airways and reduce the inflammation in your lungs.

You can use this type of inhaler if your asthma is not controlled. It can help you manage your asthma better because it's easier to stick to your medicine routine.


Always have your reliever inhaler with you to deal with symptoms of an asthma attack.

Most combination inhalers will not give quick relief if your symptoms get worse or you have an asthma attack.

How to use your inhalers

Environmental impact of inhalers

Inhalers used as treatment for asthma produce greenhouse gasses. They are perfectly safe for the person using them. But they may have an impact on the environment.

Over 4 million inhalers are used in Ireland every year.

Metered-dose inhalers (MDIs) have a higher carbon footprint than dry powder inhalers (DPIs). This is because MDIs use a propellant gas to push or blow the medicine into your airways. If you are using a DPI inhaler, you inhale or suck in the medicine and it does not use a propellant gas.

Changing your medicine


Ask your doctor (this could be your GP or hospital doctor) if they can look at the carbon footprint of different inhalers when they are choosing the best device for you and your asthma.

If you use an MDI inhaler, ask your doctor if changing to a DPI device would have an impact on your treatment. If you notice any difference in your symptoms, you can always change back.

DPI inhalers are not suitable for everyone. You may need an MDI inhaler if you find it difficult to inhale the medicine on your own.

Before you consider changing any of your medicine, discuss it with your doctor first.

Whatever inhaler you use it is important that you use it properly.

Read more about using your inhalers

Inhaler recycling scheme

Some pharmacies will take your inhalers and dispose of them as medical waste. Ask your local pharmacy if they can be disposed of in a safe and environmentally friendly way.

Read more about recycling your inhalers - mywaste.ie


You may also need to take tablets if using an inhaler is not 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.

Possible side effects include tummy aches and headaches.


You may be prescribed theophylline if other treatments do not help control your symptoms.

You take it every day to stop your symptoms occurring. Possible side effects include headaches and feeling sick.

Steroid tablets

You may need to take steroid tablets if other treatments are not helping to control your symptoms.

You take steroids:

  • when you have an asthma attack
  • as a long-term daily preventative if you have very severe asthma

You may also need them if inhalers do not control your symptoms.

Long-term or frequent use of steroid tablets can cause side effects.

These include:

  • increased appetite, leading to weight gain
  • easy bruising
  • mood changes
  • fragile bones (osteoporosis)
  • high blood pressure

Your GP will check up on you if you use steroid treatment. This is to check for signs of any problems.

Read more about taking steroids


Paying for your medicines

Generic medicines are usually cheaper than branded medicines. Ask your doctor to prescribe generic medicines for your asthma.

If you're paying for your medicines, you may be entitled to the Drug Payment Scheme.

Other treatments for asthma

Injections or surgery are rarely needed to treat asthma. But your GP or doctor may recommend them if all other treatments are not helping.


If you have severe asthma, you may get injections every few weeks. This can help control your symptoms.

These medicines are not suitable for everyone with asthma.

Only an asthma specialist can prescribe them.

The main side effect is soreness around the area where you get the injection.


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.

Page last reviewed: 9 December 2020
Next review due: 10 December 2023

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 9.