Inhaled Corticosteroids for Long-Term Control of Asthma

Covers medicines used in metered-dose or dry powder inhaler to treat asthma. Lists generic and brand names such as budesonide (Pulmicort) and fluticasone and salmeterol (Advair). Covers how well they work and side effects.

Inhaled Corticosteroids for Long-Term Control of Asthma


Generic Name Brand Name
beclomethasone QVAR
budesonide Pulmicort
ciclesonide Alvesco
flunisolide Aerospan
fluticasone Flovent
mometasone Asmanex Twisthaler

Combinations of an inhaled corticosteroid and a long-acting

Generic Name Brand Name
budesonide and formoterol Symbicort
fluticasone and salmeterol Advair
mometasone and formoterol Dulera

These medicines are used in a metered-dose or dry powder
inhaler. Inhalers may be used differently, depending
on the medicine used. Always read the directions to be sure you or your child
is using the inhaler correctly.

How It Works

All forms of corticosteroids reduce
inflammation in the airways that carry air to the
lungs (bronchial tubes) and reduce the
mucus made by the bronchial tubes. This makes it
easier for you to breathe.

Inhaled corticosteroids treat inflammation in
the airway, and only very small amounts of the medicine are absorbed into the
body. So these medicines don’t tend to cause the serious side effects, such as
weakening of the bones, that corticosteroids can cause when they are taken in liquid,
pill, or injection form (systemic corticosteroids).

Why It Is Used

Inhaled corticosteroids are the
preferred treatment for long-term control of
mild persistent,
moderate persistent, or
severe persistent asthma symptoms in children, teens,
and adults. They help control narrowing and inflammation in the bronchial
tubes. In general, they are part of daily asthma treatment and are used every

Different types of medicines are often used together in the
treatment of
asthma. For example, inhaled corticosteroids are often
used together with long-acting beta2-agonists for persistent asthma. Medicine
treatment for asthma depends on a person’s age, his or her type of asthma, and
how well the treatment is controlling asthma symptoms.

  • Children up to age 4 are usually treated a
    little differently from those 5 to 11 years old.
  • The least amount
    of medicine that controls the asthma symptoms is used.
  • The amount
    of medicine and number of medicines are increased in steps. So if asthma is not
    controlled at a low dose of one controller medicine, the dose may be increased.
    Or another medicine may be added.
  • If the asthma has been under
    control for several months at a certain dose of medicine, the dose may be
    reduced. This can help find the least amount of medicine that will control the
  • Quick-relief medicine is used to treat asthma attacks. But
    if you or your child needs to use quick-relief medicine a lot, the amount and
    number of controller medicines may be changed.

Your doctor will work with you to help find the number and
dose of medicines that work best for you.

How Well It Works

According to the United States
National Asthma Education and Prevention Program (NAEPP), inhaled
corticosteroids are the preferred long-term treatment for asthma.footnote 1 If the inhaled corticosteroid does not control asthma
symptoms well enough, other medicines, such as a long-lasting beta2-agonist or
a leukotriene pathway modifier, may be used.

Inhaled corticosteroids are the most
powerful and most effective medicine for long-term control of asthma in most
people. When taken consistently, they improve lung function, improve symptoms,
and reduce
asthma attacks and admissions to the hospital for
asthma.footnote 1

Side Effects

All medicines have side effects. But many people don’t feel the side effects, or they are able to deal with them. Ask your pharmacist about the side effects of each medicine you take. Side effects are also listed in the information that comes with your medicine.

Here are some important things to think about:

  • Usually the benefits of the medicine are more important than any minor side effects.
  • Side effects may go away after you take the medicine for a while.
  • If side effects still bother you and you wonder if you should keep taking the medicine, call your doctor. He or she may be able to lower your dose or change your medicine. Do not suddenly quit taking your medicine unless your doctor tells you to.

Side effects of inhaled corticosteroids
are uncommon at the usual dose. Side effects (many of which occur
only with high doses) may include:

  • Sore mouth, sore throat, or
  • Cough and spasms of the large airways
  • Fungus infection in the mouth (thrush).
  • Very slight reduction in growth.
  • Decreased bone thickness in adults.
  • Clouding
    of the lens of the eye (cataract).
  • High blood
    pressure in the eye or fluid buildup in the eye (glaucoma). This
    occurs with high doses of inhaled corticosteroids used over a long period of

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reported that salmeterol may make an asthma attack worse and may increase the risk of death. If your or your child’s wheezing gets worse after taking this medicine (Advair), call your doctor right away.

To minimize or
prevent side effects of corticosteroids, the person with asthma can:

  • Use a
    spacer with a metered-dose
  • Rinse his or her mouth with
    water after using a corticosteroid inhaler but should not swallow the water.
    Swallowing the water will increase the chance that the medicine will get into
    the bloodstream, increasing the potential for side effects.
  • Keep
    the dose of inhaled corticosteroids as low as possible while still maintaining
    asthma control. You may be able to limit corticosteroid use by using a
    long-acting inhaled beta2-agonist, sustained-release theophylline, or a
    leukotriene pathway modifier along with inhaled corticosteroids.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug
Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

One of the best tools for managing asthma is a controller medicine that has a corticosteroid (sometimes called a “steroid”). But some people worry about using corticosteroid medicines because of the myths they’ve heard about them. If you’re making a decision about a corticosteroid inhaler, it helps to weigh the facts against the myths.

Most doctors recommend that everyone who uses a metered-dose
inhaler (MDI) also use a
spacer, which is attached to the MDI. A spacer may
deliver the medicine to the lungs better than an inhaler alone. And for many
people a spacer is easier to use than an MDI alone. Using a spacer with inhaled
corticosteroids can help reduce their side effects and
result in less use of oral corticosteroids.

Taking medicine

Medicine is one of the many tools your doctor has to treat a health problem. Taking medicine as your doctor suggests will improve your health and may prevent future problems. If you don’t take your medicines properly, you may be putting your health (and perhaps your life) at risk.

There are many reasons why people have trouble taking their medicine. But in most cases, there is something you can do. For suggestions on how to work around common problems, see the topic Taking Medicines as Prescribed.

Advice for women

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or planning to get pregnant, do not use any medicines unless your doctor tells you to. Some medicines can harm your baby. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs, and supplements. And make sure that all your doctors know that you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or planning to get pregnant.

It is not known whether inhaled beclomethasone, flunisolide,
or fluticasone may be harmful to the
fetus of a pregnant woman who has asthma. Budesonide is
not expected to harm a fetus. A review of the animal and human studies on the
effects of asthma medicines taken during pregnancy found few risks to the woman
or her fetus. It is safer for a pregnant woman with asthma to be treated with
asthma medicines than for her to have asthma symptoms and asthma
attacks.footnote 2 Poor control of asthma is a greater risk to
the fetus than asthma medicines are.footnote 2 If you are pregnant, talk with your doctor but do not immediately stop using your
asthma medicine.

It is not known whether inhaled beclomethasone, budesonide, flunisolide, or fluticasone passes into breast
milk. Talk to your doctor if you have asthma and are breastfeeding a

Concerns for children

Some parents worry that children who use inhaled
corticosteroids may not grow as tall as other children. A very small difference in height and growth was found in children who were using inhaled corticosteroids compared to children not using them.footnote 3 And one study showed a very small difference in height [about 0.5 in. (1.3 cm)] in adults who used inhaled corticosteroids as children compared to adults who did not use inhaled corticosteroids.footnote 4 But the use of inhaled corticosteroids has important health benefits for children who have asthma. If you are worried about the effects of asthma medicines on your child, talk with your doctor.

One study noted that children who use inhaled corticosteroids do not have an increased risk for broken bones (fractures) compared to those who are not using the medicine. footnote 5

Try to avoid giving your child an inhaled
medicine when he or she is crying, because not as much medicine is delivered to
the lungs.


Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It’s also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF) ( What is a PDF document? ) to help you understand this medication.



  1. National Institutes of Health (2007). National Asthma Education and Prevention Program Expert Panel Report 3: Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma (NIH Publication No. 08–5846). Available online: ://
  2. National Asthma Education and Prevention Program (2005). Working Group Report on Managing Asthma During Pregnancy: Recommendations for Pharmacologic Treatment Update 2004 (NIH Publication No. 05-5236). Available online: ://
  3. Zhang L, et al. (2014). Inhaled corticosteroids in children with persistent asthma: Effects on growth.
    Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (10). DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009471.pub2. Accessed January 20, 2015.
  4. Kelly HW, et al. (2012). Effect of inhaled glucocorticoids in childhood on adult height. New England Journal of Medicine, 367(10): 904–912.
  5. Schlienger RG, et al. (2004). Inhaled corticosteroids and the risk of adult fractures in children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 114(2): 469–473.


ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD – Pediatrics E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine Specialist Medical Reviewer Elizabeth T. Russo, MD – Internal Medicine

Current as ofDecember 6, 2017