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Alternative Medicine for Asthma

By Ann Wu, M.D., M.P.H. ; Updated August 14, 2017

Complementary and alternative medical practices are being increasingly used for asthma. The term complementary refers to traditional practices that are used in combination with conventional medical approaches. The term alternative refers to traditional practices that substitute for allopathic medicine. Asthma and allergies rank in the top 15 most common medical conditions for which complementary and alternative medicine are used for both children and adults. However, at this point in time, few if any studies support the use of complementary and alternative medicine. Some complementary and alternative treatments may even be dangerous, so it’s important to speak with your health care provider about their potential use.

What Are Commonly Used Complementary and Alternative Treatments?

The most commonly used complementary and alternative treatments for asthma include natural products, mind-body medicine and body-based practices. Natural products include herbs and herbal products, minerals and vitamins, probiotics and specialized diets. Mind-body practices include breathing exercises, meditation, tai chi, guided imagery, relaxation, hypnosis, qi gong and yoga. Body-based practices include spinal manipulation and massage.

Are There Any Dangers to Complementary and Alternative Treatments?

Some natural products for asthma can be dangerous. For example, echinacea (cone flower daisy) and chamomile are members of the ragweed family. If an individual with asthma also has a ragweed allergy, his or her asthma symptoms could become worse. Natural ephedra (found in ma huang, a traditional Chinese herb) is sometimes used for asthma, and it could have harmful effects on the heart, especially when used with albuterol. Be careful to keep topical chest rubs like Vicks VapoRub away from children — it can potentially cause death if ingested.

While many mind-body practices are considered safe, there is some risk with progressive muscle relaxation being associated with decreased airflow and increased changes in heart rate in individuals with asthma. Body-based practices, including spinal manipulation and massage, are generally safe if provided by a trained therapist, but you should let your clinician know.

It is important not to substitute complementary therapies for rescue and controller medicines that your clinician has prescribed.

What About Yoga to Help Control Asthma?

Some studies suggest that yoga may improve asthma control, asthma symptoms, quality of life and lung function. Gentle yoga could be adopted to complement usual care for asthma because there are few adverse effects.

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