Can Asthma Be Safely Treated With Over the Counter Medicines?

by Kathi MacNaughton Health Professional

One of the frequent questions I've seen here and on other asthma websites is whether asthma can be safely treated with (cheaper) over the counter medicines. So, I thought I'd use this post to explore the answers to that question.

Some Facts

Before I get started, though, let's refresh your memory about a couple of asthma facts:

  • Asthma is very treatable. While asthma is a chronic, long-term illness that often can't be avoided in the first place, the good news is that it is fairly easily treatable in most cases. With the right treatment, people who have asthma should be able to live full, active lives without many -- or any -- limits.

  • The best treatment for the majority of people with asthma is a daily or twice daily inhaled steroid. Of course, no one medicine works best for everyone, but research has shown that inhaled steroids are generally the most effective asthma medicine. If they are used correctly, as prescribed, they should control your symptoms most of the time.

Unfortunately, inhaled steroids, like most asthma medicines, are only available at this time by prescription. And they can be expensive, especially the newest ones, particularly if you count in the cost of having to get regular medical care too. Also, the cost increased a couple of years ago, when pharmaceutical manufacturers had to phase out the old CFC inhalers in favor of the supposedly more environmentally-friendly HFA inhalers.

So, with so many people in the United States lacking health insurance that would pay for doctor's visits and prescriptions, there continues to be a demand for the old-fashioned over-the-counter generic CFC inhalers, such as Primatene Mist.

Is Primatene Mist Like an Inhaled Steroid or Albuterol Inhalers?

The answer to this question is no. Primatene Mist and other OTC generic inhalers like it contain the medicine epinephrine. Although the action is similar to the albuterol inhaler -- in other words, quick but short-term relief of asthma symptoms -- the actual chemical in the medicine is different, and probably not quite as effective, though many happy users might disagree.

The problem is that neither Primatene Mist or albuterol inhalers can safely be used as a controller medicine for asthma. They temporarily relieve symptoms, but they do not treat the underlying disease as inhaled steroids do.

Also, Primatene Mist is a CFC inhaler and will not be sold after the end of 2011.

Primatene Mist type inhalers are much cheaper, though, than their prescription alternatives. They also have a different taste and a different feel in the mouth.

Primatene Mist type medicines are safer than it was once thought, provided you use them as you should. You can visit the Primatene Mist website for more information on correct usage and possible side effects and risks. Keep in mind, though, that these generic OTC inhalers will only be available for another year... and they are definitely NOT the best way to control asthma.

Are There Other OTC Alternatives?

There is no other type of asthma medicine available without a doctor's prescription. However, asthma is often closely related to nasal allergies. So, if you can get your allergies under control, you may be able to lessen your asthma symptoms at the same time. And there are quite a few choices for treating allergies over the counter.

There are also a few promising "natural" or alternative treatments for asthma, which you can read about here. Most of those won't be a 100% effective substitute for prescription asthma medicine, however.

So... Should You Treat Asthma With OTC Meds?

My advice, as a healthcare professional, is no. There is not an OTC medicine on the market today that can adequately control asthma and its symptoms. And uncontrolled, or even poorly controlled asthma, can cause long-term airway damage.

If your asthma is severe enough to need treatment, then you probably need to be under the care of a physician. And you most likely need to be taking some kind of prescription medicine.

In the long run, you need to decide whether your good health is worth a financial investment. I happen to think mine is, so I plan to spend money on my medicines the same way I do my weekly grocery bill and my monthly mortgage. It's not fun having to spend money on those things, but it IS necessary.

Kathi  MacNaughton
Meet Our Writer
Kathi MacNaughton

Kathi is an experienced consumer health education writer, with a prior career in nursing that spanned more than 30 years — much of it in the field of home health care. Over the past 15 years, she's been an avid contributor for a number of consumer health websites, specializing in asthma, allergy, and COPD. She writes not only as a healthcare professional, but also as a lifelong sufferer of severe allergies and mild asthma, and as a caregiver for her mother with COPD.