These medications quickly control acute asthma attacks.
Beta2-agonists serve as bronchodilators, relaxing and opening constricted airways during an acute asthma attack. A short-acting inhaled beta2-agonist, taken as needed, is often the only medication used by children with chronic mild asthma.
Albuterol (Proventil, Ventolin), called salbutamol outside the U.S., is the standard short-acting beta2-agonist in America. Other similar beta2-agonists are isoproterenol (Isuprel, Norisodrine, and Medihaler-Iso), metaproterenol (Alupent, Metaprel), pirbuterol (Maxair), terbutaline (Brethine, Brethaire, and Bricanyl), levalbuterol (Xopenex), and bitolterol (Tornalate).
Short-acting bronchodilators are generally administered through inhalation and are effective for 3 - 6 hours. They relieve the symptoms of acute attacks, but they do not control the underlying inflammation. If asthma continues to worsen with the use of these drugs, a doctor may prescribe corticosteroids or other drugs to treat underlying inflammation.
Side Effects of Beta2-Agonists. Side effects of all beta2-agonists may include:
- Fast and irregular heartbeats. Notify a doctor immediately if this side effect occurs.
- Children with diabetes or a history of seizures should take these drugs with caution.
- Beta2-agonists have serious interactions with certain drugs; parents should tell the doctor about any other medications their child is taking.
Loss of Effectiveness and Overdose. Short-acting beta2-agonists become less effective when taken regularly over time, which increases the risk for overuse. Overdose can be serious and in rare cases even life threatening.
Two inhaled drugs, ipratropium bromide (Atrovent) and tiotropium (Spiriva), act as bronchodilators over time. Neither is highly beneficial for acute asthma attacks. Moreover, the drugs are not approved specifically for asthma. Some parents, however, report these drugs are helpful for treating wheezing in infants. The drugs are also sometimes used in the emergency room to treat children with severe asthma to enhance the effects of intravenous beta2-agonists.
Common oral corticosteroids include prednisone/prednisolone, dexamethasone, methylprednisolone, and hydrocortisone. They reduce inflammation very effectively. They are most commonly prescribed for asthma flareups that do not respond to inhaler medications. Doctors may provide a written prescription for patients to keep on hand, with specific instructions about when to fill it. Usually, the dosage starts out higher and is gradually reduced over a 5 - 7 day period. Prolonged use of oral steroids has widespread and sometimes serious side effects, so they are not generally given to children for longer than 5 - 7 days.
[For more information, see In-Depth Report #4: Asthma in adults.]
Review Date: 05/03/2011
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.