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Common Questions About Corticosteroids in Asthma

Q: What is a corticosteroid?

A: A corticosteroid is a type of drug that reduces inflammation of the airways, the major cause of asthma. These medications can be inhaled to prevent symptoms rather than treat flare-ups. When used in this way, they are called long-term-control medicines. People take them every day, even when they feel fine. For the drug to work, you need to take it exactly as your health care provider tells you to.

In most cases, this type of drug may be given as a tablet or liquid (systemic) for flare-ups, in addition to treating more severe symptoms that are related to asthma. This strategy is used to get asthma under control quickly and stop flare-ups from happening again.  

Q: Will inhaled corticosteroids stop an asthma attack that is under way?  

A: No.

Q: Is it unusual for a provider to change my dose?  

A: No. In fact, the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program’s Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma recommend a “stepwise” approach to asthma care. This means that your health care provider should adjust your medicine, stepping it up or down, depending on how you are feeling. The goal is to find the lowest dose that you need to control your asthma. Never adjust your dose without talking with your health care provider. 

Q: Do corticosteroids have side effects?

A: As is the case with many medicines, corticosteroids can cause side effects in some people. Serious side effects are rare, but include shortness of breath, trouble breathing, wheezing, and swelling of the eyes, lips, or face. Whenever you notice side effects, even if they are mild, always tell your health care provider. 

Q: Is it safe to take corticosteroids during pregnancy?  

A: Although there is no absolute proof that any medicine is entirely safe during pregnancy, inhaled corticosteroids are the first drug of choice for controlling asthma inflammation while pregnant. Your health care provider may suggest an oral form if your asthma is severe.

The National Asthma Education and Prevention Program's guidelines for asthma care during pregnancy emphasize how important it is for the mother and baby to get the mother’s asthma under control. The guidelines offer reassurance when it comes to using asthma medicine.

Research shows that the risk of leaving asthma untreated is more dangerous than any proven risk of taking most asthma medicines. In fact, mothers who do not control their asthma while pregnant can put a developing baby at increased risk for serious health problems or even death.