What Are the Treatments for COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a disease that makes it hard to breathe. Narrowed airways can make you cough, wheeze, and feel short of breath. It can affect how you exercise, work, and do other daily activities.

The goal in treating COPD is to help you breathe easier and get you back to your regular activities.

Here are some of the treatments your doctor might recommend to improve your symptoms:

Bronchodilators

These relax the muscles around your airways to let more air into your lungs. They can help with symptoms such as a cough and shortness of breath.

You breathe the medicine into your lungs through a device called an inhaler. Bronchodilators can be short-acting or long-acting:

Short-acting bronchodilators: These work quickly, and the effects last for about 4 to 6 hours. You use them only when you have symptoms, or before you exercise.

These drugs are helpful for people who only have symptoms from time to time. Short-acting bronchodilators may include:

Long-acting bronchodilators: They work for up to 12 hours. You take these every day to prevent symptoms. Some of them are:

You can get dry mouth and headaches from bronchodilators. Other side effects include:

Steroids

These bring down swelling in your airways. You usually breathe them in through an inhaler. Inhaled steroids can help if you have many COPD flare-ups. You might take steroids as a pill if your symptoms get worse.

Examples of inhaled steroids are:

Some medicines combine a bronchodilator and inhaled steroid. These include:

Side effects of steroid medicines depend on how long you take them. You may found yourself gaining weight or getting easily bruised. Other side effects might include:

  • Cough
  • Increased chance of infections
  • Infections of the mouth
  • Hoarse voice
  • Sore mouth or throat
  • Weakened bones

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Phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE-4) Inhibitors

A new drug called roflumilast (Daliresp) can help with severe COPD symptoms.

It brings down swelling in the lungs and opens up the airways. You might take it with a long-acting bronchodilator. Side effects include diarrhea and weight loss.

Theophylline

This medicine works like a bronchodilator, but it's less expensive.

Theophylline can help your lungs work better, but it may not control all of your symptoms.

Antibiotics

An infection can make your COPD symptoms worse. Your doctor will give you antibiotics to kill the bacteria and treat the infection.

Take all the medicine you're prescribed. If you stop taking the antibiotics too early, the infection could come back.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehab is a program to help you manage COPD. It can ease shortness of breath, help you exercise more easily, and improve your quality of life. At a hospital or clinic, you'll work with a team of doctors, nurses, dietitians, physical therapists, and respiratory therapists.

During this program, you'll learn how to:

  • Keep your lungs healthy.
  • Exercise without getting short of breath.
  • Eat right.
  • Breathe easier.
  • Feel better emotionally and physically.

Oxygen Therapy

Severe COPD can prevent you from getting enough air into your lungs. As a result, oxygen levels in your blood can get too low. Therapy increases these levels to help you stay active and healthy.

You breathe in oxygen through a mask or prongs in your nose. It can come from a big home unit, or a small tank you carry around with you. You might need oxygen all the time or only when you're active.

Vaccinations

Get a yearly flu shot to reduce the number of COPD flare-ups you have. Ask your doctor whether you should also get a pneumonia vaccine.

Surgery

If other treatments don't work and your COPD is severe, you might need one of these surgeries to treat it:

  • Bullectomy. Air sacs are the tiny pouches in your lungs where oxygen travels into your blood vessels. COPD destroys the walls of these air sacs. When the walls come down, they create large spaces in your lungs, called bullae. These bullae make it hard to breathe. Bullectomy is surgery to remove the air spaces and improve the flow of air in your lungs.
  • Lung volume reduction surgery. The surgeon removes small pieces of your lungs that COPD has damaged. Removing the damaged parts helps the healthy parts of your lungs expand so they can take in more oxygen.
  • Lung transplantIf you have severe lung damage, your doctor can remove your lung and replace it with a healthy one from a donor. This surgery does have risks, and you will need to take medicines for the rest of your life to prevent your body from rejecting the new organ.

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Lifestyle Changes

Treatment from your doctor is just one part of COPD care. A few changes to your daily life can also help you breathe easier. The most important one is to quit smoking.

Cigarette smoke is the leading cause of COPD, and it can make the disease worse. It may not be easy for you to quit, but many methods are available to help. Ask your doctor about nicotine replacement, medicine, and counseling.

Once you've quit, try to stay away from anyone else who smokes. Avoid dust and chemical fumes, too. A couple of other things to consider:

  • Talk to a dietitian. See what he says about your eating plan. You might need to eat smaller meals more often or take supplements to get the nutrients you need.
  • Exercise. This is also important when you have COPD. It strengthens the muscles that help you breathe.

Your doctor can help you design a fitness program that's safe for you. You'll also learn breathing techniques to help you exercise.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on November 20, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:
American Lung Association: "Managing Your COPD Medications."

American Family Physician: “Treatment of Stable Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: the GOLD Guidelines.”

Mayo Clinic: "COPD Treatment."

National Health Service: "Bronchodilators -- Side Effects."

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "How Is COPD Treated?" "What Causes COPD?" "What is COPD?"

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