Common concerns about medicines

Lots of people worry about taking medicines for a long-term condition such as asthma.

But if these worries stop you taking the best treatment for you, this can be a threat to your everyday wellbeing, and even put you at risk of a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. To help put your mind at ease, we respond to some of your most common concerns:

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I hate taking medicine for a long-term condition

Some people worry about taking medicines for a long-term condition such as asthma. If you’re one of them, weighing up the pros and cons can help you find a positive way forward. Ask your GP or asthma nurse, or a pharmacist, to run through all the benefits of your medicines and how they work, to help you feel clear about you why you need to take them. It can also be useful to think about what might happen if you don’t take your medicines – such as breathlessness, wheezing, coughing at night, not feeling well enough to see your friends, or missing work if you have an asthma attack. Ask yourself how you’ll feel if you don’t take your medicines and you miss a party or work conference because you’re unwell.

I don’t understand why I need medicine if I’m feeling well

When you’re getting asthma symptoms, you feel unwell and you use your reliever inhaler (usually blue) to help you feel well again. So your reliever inhaler is the one you use to relieve asthma symptoms when they’re actually happening. You can feel it working quickly.

Your preventer inhaler works in a different way. It contains a dose of steroid medicine that, if you’re taking it every day in the right way, controls the inflammation and swelling in your airways. This reduces your risk of having symptoms in the first place, and makes your airways less likely to react to any triggers. Although you won’t notice an immediate benefit, it has a protective effect that builds up over time and works away in the background. This cuts your risk of asthma attacks and means you’re less likely to have other symptoms, such as breathlessness. It means you’re less likely to need to use your reliever inhaler. And it means you might even not get any asthma symptoms at all so you can do all the things you might want to do, such as working, studying, travelling, taking your children to the park and/or going out with friends.

If you don’t use your preventer inhaler every day in the right way, the protection it gives your airways will start to reduce, which means you'll be more likely to react to your asthma triggers. This puts you at risk of a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. That’s why it’s really important for you to use your preventer inhaler every day exactly as it’s prescribed.

Remember - if you’re staying well, and not reacting to triggers, it means your medicine is working! And if you stay well, your GP or asthma nurse may even be able to reduce the dose of your preventer medicine at your next asthma review.

If you’re well and aren’t keen to take your preventer medicines, you might find it helpful to think about how comforting it is for your family to know you’re well and how much they worry when your asthma gets worse – especially if they’ve felt scared when you’ve had an asthma attack before.

I’m concerned about taking steroids

A lot of people worry about taking steroids, so you’re not alone. It’s important to remember that the steroids used to treat asthma are corticosteroids, which are a copy of substances the body makes naturally. They are completely different to the anabolic steroids used by bodybuilders.

If you’re taking low-dose steroids through inhalers, taking them correctly means the medicine goes straight to your airways and is less likely to cause any side effects - very little medicine is absorbed into the rest of your body.

If your symptoms get worse or you have an asthma attack, you will need a short course of steroids in tablet form alongside your usual inhalers. Or you might be taking higher doses of steroids – either in an inhaler or in tablet form - in the longer term. In these cases, steroids can have some side effects

The key thing here is that steroids are a powerful and effective treatment and they’ll only be prescribed if your healthcare professional thinks the benefits outweigh the risks.

It may help to spend five minutes writing a list of the pros and cons of taking steroids. For example, in your ‘pro’ column you may have, “Taking my preventer inhaler means I stay well enough to work/take the children to the park” or “Taking a short course of steroid tablets means I don’t end up in hospital”. You can also speak to your GP or asthma nurse about your concerns. Or call one of our asthma nurse specialists on our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 (Mon – Fri; 9am – 5pm). If you’re worried about giving your child steroids, you can find some reassuring information here

And if you’re taking steroid tablets in the long term for severe asthma, visit our page on using steroids in the long term.

I’m worried about side effects in the future

It’s important to talk to a healthcare professional about your concerns. Don’t stop taking your inhaler. Think about exactly what worries you and write down your worries so you can discuss them with your GP, hospital doctor or asthma nurse – or you could speak to your pharmacist. Also, think about the benefits you may get from your medicine and weigh these up against your concerns about side effects that may never even happen. Just because you've experienced side effects from other medicines, or you've read comments on chatrooms or in the media about others having side effects, it does not mean you are going to get them. Everyone is different and reacts differently to their medicines.

You might find it useful to consider what the side effects of NOT taking your medicines are – such as breathlessness, wheezing, coughing at night, not feeling well enough to exercise, not feeling able to enjoy your social life, ending up in hospital due to an asthma attack.

I don’t like the side effects I’m getting

If you think you might be getting side effects from a medicine, it’s important to talk to your GP or asthma nurse about them as soon as possible. You might be surprised that there could be a simple way to reduce or treat the side effect so you can carry on taking the medicine and getting the benefits for your asthma. If this isn’t possible, there may be an alternative medicine for your asthma you can try.

It’s important to weigh up the good things your medicine is doing for you against the side effects you don’t like. Create a list of pros and a list of cons for yourself and see how it makes you feel, but keep in mind that most preventer medicines take a few weeks to see the benefit. You might  try asking your partner, friends or family if they've noticed the benefits from your medicine – sometimes the people around us see more positive or negative changes than we can see for ourselves.

Your GP or asthma nurse can help you understand the benefits of the medicines you’re taking. You can also speak to an asthma specialist nurse on our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 (Mon – Fri; 9am – 5pm).

I don't like the hassle of taking medicines

“Some people find having to take inhalers can get in the way of life,” says Sonia Munde, our Head of Helpline. “If that’s the case for you, or for your child, talk to your GP or asthma nurse about finding less disruptive ways to take it. For example, if it’s a struggle to give your child their inhaler, your GP or asthma nurse might be able to suggest some techniques to take the stress out of it.” If it’s more that you find it inconvenient to take medicine twice a day, if your asthma’s well managed, your GP or asthma nurse might be able to prescribe a medicine you take just once a day.

I’m embarrassed to use inhalers

If you’re self-conscious about using inhalers in front of people, Sonia Munde, our Head of Helpline, suggests asking your GP or asthma nurse if there’s a more discreet device you could use. And remember, if you use your preventer inhaler regularly you’re less likely to need your reliever inhaler anyway.

Surely one inhaler is enough?

Everyone with asthma should be given a reliever inhaler (usually blue), which works very quickly by relaxing the airways to make breathing easier. You use a reliever inhaler only when your symptoms come on. Reliever inhalers are essential in treating asthma attacks because they work so fast – you should keep yours (and your spacer if you have one) with you all the time.

You might also be given a preventer inhaler to use every day whether you have symptoms or not. This works in the long term to control the inflammation and swelling in your airways to help prevent them reacting to triggers and causing asthma symptoms and asthma attacks in the first place. If you’ve been given a preventer inhaler, it’s important you take it to cut your risk of having an asthma attack. Taking it as prescribed will also mean you’ll need to use your reliever inhaler less often.

I'm concerned about having to take a preventer tablet as well as my preventer inhaler

If you've been prescribed a preventer tablet (Leukotriene Receptor Antagonist) to take alongside your preventer inhaler it's because your GP thinks you will benefit from some extra help with your asthma symptoms.

Leukotriene Receptor Antagonists (LTRAs) are recommended as an add-on asthma treatment to help with asthma symptoms when your preventer inhaler alone doesn't seem to be helping enough. They relax the airways in your lungs to make breathing easier and prevent asthma attacks. They also reduce your body's response to allergens (substances that cause you to have an allergic reaction) and to certain situations which trigger asthma attacks, for example exercise. 

It's important to keep taking your preventer inhaler as prescribed alongside the tablet. 

Whenever your GP makes a change to your  usual prescription you should get another appointment four to eight weeks later to check the new medicines are working well for you. It's helpful to go for regular asthma reviews so you can be sure you're taking the right medicine for you. Sometimes if your asthma is well managed your GP might be able to reduce the medicines you take for your asthma.

I’m worried my inhalers will interact with other medicines

Some medicines may interact with your asthma medicine. So you should always talk to your GP, asthma nurse or pharmacist before you take another medicine – even an over-the-counter medicine or any complementary treatments, such as herbal or homeopathic remedies. If you’re taking other prescribed medicine that may interact with asthma medicines – which include some types of beta-blockers, given to help conditions such as high blood pressure - your GP will monitor you and decide whether the benefits of taking both medicines outweigh the risks or whether it’s better to consider an alternative. 

I don’t think I’m using my inhaler properly

It’s very common to have problems but it’s important to make sure you’re using your inhaler properly so you’re getting all the benefits from your medicine. You should ask your GP, asthma nurse or pharmacist to check your inhaler technique. They might suggest you try using a different type of device that’s right for you or may give you a spacer.

I'm worried my medicine doesn’t work

“You can’t feel the preventer inhaler working as you can with the reliever,” says Sonia Munde, our Head of Helpline. “That’s because it works in a different way, controlling the swelling and inflammation in your airways to help prevent asthma attacks. Rather than treating immediate symptoms, it works away in the background, helping to calm your airways and make you less likely to react to your triggers. Taking your preventer inhaler every day, as directed, reduces how often you need to use your reliever inhaler.” If you’re confused about how or when to take your inhalers, ask your GP or asthma nurse to go over it with you.

I'm worried my medicine will stop working if I keep taking it

This doesn’t happen with the preventer inhaler – in fact, you need to take it every day so its protective effects can build up. Remember: the reliever inhaler is just to relieve symptoms. It’s very important you use it whenever you need to, but if you’re using it three times a week or more, speak to your GP or asthma nurse as it may mean you’re at risk of an asthma attack.

I don’t think I’m on the right treatment

“It’s important you feel able to talk openly with your healthcare professional if you’re unsure they’ve given you the right medicine,” says Sonia Munde, our Head of Helpline. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your treatment concerns with your GP, see if you can speak to a different GP, or to your asthma nurse. You could also speak to a pharmacist – remember, they're experts on medicines. You can also speak to an asthma nurse specialist on our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 (9am – 5pm; Mon - Fri).

I think my medicine isn’t worth the expense

Remember, your preventer medicine works in the long term to lower your risk of having an asthma attack – so you should take it even when you feel well. If you take your preventer inhaler regularly, it should reduce your need for the reliever inhaler. If you’re struggling with the costs of your medicine, pre-payment certificates can save you money.

I’d rather take a lower dose

Your GP, asthma nurse or hospital doctor has decided on the right dose of medicine to help keep your symptoms well managed, so never change it without speaking to them. “Make sure you go for your regular asthma review, which you should have at least once a year, or every six months for children,” says Sonia Munde, our Head of Helpline. “Sometimes, if your asthma’s well managed, your dose might be able to be reduced after a discussion with your GP or asthma nurse.”

I keep forgetting my medicine

There are lots of reasons why you might find it hard to remember to take your medicine – perhaps you have a lot of other medicines to take as well, or maybe you forget when you’re out of your usual routine. Think about what might help you remember. For example, you could keep your preventer inhaler next to your toothbrush so you remember to take it morning and evening when you clean your teeth. If you have trouble remembering when you need new prescriptions, you could try a reminder app on your phone or ask someone to help you remember. “Speak to a healthcare professional if you keep forgetting,” says Sonia Munde, our Head of Helpline. “It doesn’t have to be your usual doctor – you can talk to your asthma nurse or your pharmacist too.”

How do I recycle my used inhalers?

Recycling your used inhalers is a great way to make a difference to the environment and cut CO2 emissions. And thanks to GlaxoSmithKline’s ‘Complete the Cycle’ campaign it’s easy too - just take them back to any participating pharmacy. This is good news because you can’t recycle your used inhalers using kerbside recycling.

Find your nearest participating pharmacy here. 


Last reviewed January 2018

Next review due November 2019