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What Are Leukotriene Modifiers?

By S. Berger
Updated May 17, 2024
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Leukotriene modifiers are drugs that are used to control asthma. This condition can have complex contributing factors, and in some people, it may involve the overactivity of fatty acids called leukotrienes. Cells in the respiratory system have receptors that allow them to respond to these acids, and these responses can include mucus production and having the clearance of fluids reduced, among others. Overall, these reactions can lead to inflammation of airway tissue, causing breathing difficulties. Therefore, preventing cells from responding to leukotrienes with these drugs can help stop asthma attacks from occurring.

Generally, leukotriene modifiers are given as a preventative measure, as they do not seem to be effective in treating asthma incidents after they start. Drugs in this class, such as zafirlukast and montelukast, can be taken on a daily basis to reduce the response to asthma triggers, whether they come from the environment or are due to exercise. Often, they must be taken for as long as two weeks before they can be as effective as possible, after which they can usually prevent reactions such as muscle contractions, mucus production, and impaired breathing.

Forms of asthma that are responses to certain molecules may be alleviated through these compounds. Aspirin-induced asthma is one variety that has been studied at the University of Wisconsin. Five out of six people, according to one such study, were able to avoid an asthma attack upon exposure to aspirin when they inhaled a leukotriene modifier an hour beforehand. These participants, on average, reported that their symptoms were reduced by about half. In addition to showing that these compounds could be effective as a therapy for many types of asthma, they also show that they are useful whether they are taken orally, as a tablet, or when then they are inhaled in a vapor form.

Medications that belong to the family of leukotriene modifiers can also sometimes be used to treat allergies, which are caused by similar mechanisms as asthma. Some studies performed by manufacturers of these drugs have shown that they are about as effective as more traditional allergy treatments, like antihistamines. Unlike antihistamines, however, they cannot normally be used to treat allergies that have already started, so they must be taken before exposure to allergens.

Like most other medications, leukotriene modifiers carry some risks of causing unwanted side effects. Individuals that use this type of medication usually do not develop these effects, but occasionally, they might experience stomach issues, including pain or nausea, or headaches. Normally, people become tolerant to these relatively minor events after taking leukotriene modifiers for some time; more rarely, people may have mental effects like confusion or anxiety, which could require medical intervention to resolve them.

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