Although there is no cure for COPD, the medications are designed to help manage symptoms and help improve your quality of life, extend lifespan and keep flare-ups from becoming life threatening.
Because you can expect your symptoms to become more severe over time as the disease progresses, your doctor will probably decide to adjust your prescriptions throughout the course of your COPD.
Controller vs. Rescue Medications
Most COPD medications fall into one of two categories: controller or rescue medications. Both are part of an overall course of treatment.
- Controller medication is a long-term treatment designed to keep your lungs clear, leading to easy breathing and a more active life. It is taken regularly, often daily…even when you are breathing well. Some of these medications are in pill form; others are delivered via inhaler or nebulizer. You probably won’t notice immediate changes in your breathing while taking a controller medication, but it is an important part of your treatment to help prevent lungs from becoming tight, resulting in breathing difficulties.1
- Rescue medication is a short-term treatment, typically delivered via an inhaler, and designed to work quickly and deliver relief—usually in less than a minute—when you have a flare-up and difficulty breathing.
Common COPD Medications
Below are some of the more common COPD medications. Your doctor may also recommend vaccinations for flu and pneumonia.
Bronchodilators help open or relax the muscles around your airways and relieve shortness of breath and coughing. These are often a first course of treatment.
- Short-acting bronchodilators often help treat patients with stable COPD and intermittent flare-ups. They are designed to provide relief within minutes and results typically last 4 to 6 hours.
- Long-acting bronchodilators help prevent or reduce breathing problems in patients with persistent symptoms. Most of these medications are effective for about 12 hours.
- Beta2-agonists help relax tight muscles and widen airways.
- Anticholinergics stop muscles from tightening and help clear mucus from lungs.
- Combination medications include two or more medicines in the same inhaler.
Corticosteroids help to make breathing easier by reducing inflammation and swelling, treating flare-ups and reducing the production of mucus in airways. Side effects can include weight gain, diabetes, osteoporosis, cataracts, increased risk of infection and bruising.
- Inhaled corticosteroids help prevent flare-ups and treat stable symptoms of COPD.
- Oral forms of corticosteroids, such as pills or liquid, are used for short periods and particular circumstances—most notably to treat a moderate or severe flare-up when symptoms get worse rapidly.
Expectorants help to break up phlegm and mucus in airways and lungs. Guaifenesin is the active ingredient that thins and loosens mucus and helps clear congestion. While there are many over-the-counter expectorants, check with your doctor first. It may not be sufficient for your COPD.
Mucolytics help thin mucus and remove it from airways. Doctors often prescribe them with inhaled bronchodilators.
Antibiotics help deal with flare-ups caused by bacterial or viral infections. While there are many antibiotics on the market, your doctor will know what is best to prescribe based on the cause of the infection. If you have any allergic reaction to antibiotics, report this to your doctor immediately. Always take antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Do not stop the course of treatment because you think you feel better.
Phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) helps to prevent COPD flare-ups and improve breathing by reducing inflammation and relaxing the airways of patients with severe COPD.
Methylxanthineshelp to relax the airways and clear mucus in severe cases of COPD. They help improve breathing by stimulating control centers of the brain. Because serious side effects are possible, this medication is reserved as a last choice when nothing else helps.
Discuss COPD Medications with Your Doctor
Clearly, there is a broad range of medications available. You need to have a conversation with your doctor, discussing types of medications, their benefits and possible side effects and dosage. If your doctor prescribes an inhaler, read instructions carefully and ask your healthcare professional to show you how to use it correctly. Also, if you have any allergic reactions to medications, alert your doctor immediately.