Can you get Theophylline over the counter?

Reviewed by:
Angela DiLaura, NP
Clinical Informatics and Quality Manager
Last updated on January 10, 2022 UTC

Theophylline is a bronchodilator that deals with the symptoms of bronchitis, asthma, emphysema, and various other breathing problems. It is by prescription only and not available over-the-counter. Theophylline is a second-line drug, meaning it is generally not the first choice for treating respiratory disorders such as asthma. However, if your doctor decides you can benefit from taking theophylline along with your first-line medications, you may be able to get an asthma prescription online.

What Is Theophylline?

Theophylline is used in preventing and treating shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness. These conditions are caused by chronic bronchitis, asthma, emphysema, and other lung diseases. Theophylline opens the airways in the lungs by relaxing their muscle cells and reducing the body's response to substances that cause airways to constrict. It helps make one start breathing more comfortably. 

Benefits Of Theophylline in Comparison to Other Drugs 

Theophylline can work pretty quickly, and it can open the airways in the lungs to make one breathe more comfortably. It’s important to follow all the directions on the prescription label.

Theophylline Side Effects

Theophylline needs closer monitoring and has more potential side effects than do the first-line common asthma medications. This is a reason why theophylline is a secondary choice for asthma treatment. A patient using theophylline needs emergency medical assistance if having a moderate or severe allergic reaction. Signs may include breathing difficulties, feeling weak or faint, hives; or swelling of the throat, tongue, face, or lips. Other possible side effects for which a patient should get medical attention may include:

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats 

  • Vomiting or diarrhea

  • Trouble sleeping or ongoing headache

  • Tremors, seizure

  • Fever

  • Leg cramps

  • Chest fluttering

  • Increased urination or thirst

  • Tingling or numbness.

  • Muscle weakness.

  • High blood sugar.

  • Fruity breath odor.

Before Taking Theophylline

One should let their doctor know about past and current medical conditions, especially problems such as:

  • Peptic or gastric ulcer

  • Hepatitis, cirrhosis, or other liver disease

  • Heart problem

  • Cystic fibrosis

  • Kidney disease

  • Seizures

  • Thyroid disorder

  • Current pregnancy

Interactions Of Theophylline with Other Medications

Theophylline interacts with several medications adversely. A list of some medications it interacts with includes:

  • Accolate (zafirlukast): may become less effective when taken with theophylline.

  • Allopurinol: may increase theophylline's blood concentrations.

  • Beta-blockers: may become less effective when taken along with theophylline. 

  • Ciprofloxacin and other quinolone antibiotics: may decrease concentrations of theophylline and instead raise concentrations of the antibiotic. This may increase the risk of experiencing side effects of antibiotics. 

  • Zileuton (Zyflo): may cause theophylline concentrations in the blood to increase. 

  • Carbamazepine (Tegretol): may put you at risk of having a seizure. 

  • Benzodiazepines: may become less effective when taken along with theophylline. 

  • Formoterol: taking this with theophylline may cause low potassium (hypokalemia).

Tell your HealthTap online doctor or your in-person doctor about any medications you're taking. Sometimes a doctor may decide that theophylline is not for you or work out an alternative asthma prescription

Available Forms of Theophylline

Theophylline can be found in several forms, including:

  • Extended-release tablets

  • Immediate-release tablets

  • Oral suspension

  • Extended-release capsules

  • Injectable solution used for emergency purposes

How to Take Theophylline Safely

Go for Regular Blood Tests

Theophylline can be a hazardous drug if you take too much or too little of it. It's essential to go for regular blood tests ordered by your doctor to ensure that the theophylline in your blood remains at safe levels.

Take Theophylline Exactly as It Is Prescribed

Theophylline must be taken exactly according to your prescription for asthma. The common dosing interval is every 12 hours. However, you should ask your doctor about your own instructions.

If you do not take theophylline exactly as prescribed, it can cause complications. Too much theophylline is dangerous and can be toxic to your body. Too little theophylline runs the risk of the drug being ineffective. 

If a patient is unsure of their prescribed dosage, they should ask their primary care doctor online at HealthTap or their in-person doctor.

Swallow the Tablets Whole

A patient should swallow the theophylline tablet whole with water and not attempt to crush or chew the tablet. A crushed tablet can lead to your body absorbing the drug too quickly, and thus may lead to side effects.

If unsure of the right way to take your medicine, always contact your doctor. Additionally, you can consult the patient information leaflet with the medication.

Do a Review of Your Asthma Medications Regularly

If you're taking theophylline, it's important to regularly review it with your doctor to verify whether the medicine is working well for you or not. This becomes especially crucial when you're taking other drugs along with theophylline. Book an online asthma appointment to review treatment plans.

If you're pregnant, breastfeeding, or planning to get pregnant, let the doctor know. This medicine may not be the right one for you, so your doctor’s advice is important. 

Store the Drug at Room Temperature Unless Advised Otherwise:

Unless your doctor or pharmacist tells you otherwise, it's recommended to store oral theophylline at room temperature. Also, keep the medication away from direct sunlight and never store it in the glove compartment.


More articles in Asthma

Not just a doctor —
your doctor