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COPD Lexicon: Medicine Terms To Know

When referring to COPD medicines, we often refer to big terms. Some of you may know what they mean, while others do not. So, if you already know this, you can consider this a review. Otherwise, here are some basic terms associated with COPD medicines.


Smooth muscles wrap around airways. During flare-ups, these muscles may spasm and contract. This causes your bronchial airways to become narrow. This obstructs airways, making it hard to breathe. So, bronchodilators relax these muscles to open airways. There are two types of bronchodilators: Beta 2 Adrenergic and Muscarinic.

Beta 2 (B2) Adrengergic

On cells lining, airways are B2 receptors. During times of stress, your body releases neurotransmitters that have a high affinity for these receptors. When they bind with them, this stimulates bronchial smooth muscles to relax. This opens airways making it easy to get in a deep breath. B2 Adrenergics are medicines that mimic these neurotransmitters. They have a high affinity (are attracted to) for B2 receptors cells in airways to open airways.


On cells lining your airways are muscarinic receptors. A neurotransmitter called acecylcholine has a high affinity for them. It binds with them and causes bronchial smooth muscles to constrict. This returns your airways to normal after times of stress. In people with COPD or asthma, this response may be exaggerated. So, muscarinics are medicines that are attracted to muscarinic receptors. They bind with them and prevent acetylcholine from doing so. So, this in effect opens airways to make breathing easier.


Another term for muscarinic.

Back-door bronchodilator

Another term for muscarinic. B2 Adrenergics take the front door by directly causing bronchodilation. Muscarinics take the back door by blocking acetylcholine from causing bronchodilation.

Short-Acting Muscarinics

These are muscarinics that last 4-6 hours. A good example here is ipratropium bromide (Atrovent).

Long-Acting Muscarinic Antagonists (LAMAs)

These are muscarinics that last 12-24 hours. tiotropium bromide has a very high affinity for muscarinic receptors. It holds on for over 24 hours.

Short-Acting B2 Adrenergic (SABA)

They open airways fast. They last 4-5 hours. This would include albuterol (Ventolin, Proventil) and levalbuterol (Xopenex).

Rescue medicine

Another term for SABAs.

Long-Acting B2 Adrenergic (LABA)

This includes B2 Adrenergic medicines that last 12-24 hours. They are taken once or twice daily to prevent flare-ups and control COPD. They keep airways open long-term. Examples here include salmeterol (Serevent).


These are medicines that mimic the effects of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is secreted by your adrenal glands during periods of stress. It reduces airway inflammation to help open airways so you can take a deep breath. So, corticosteroids have the same effect. They are often used to open airways and end COPD flare-ups.

Systemic corticosteroids

They are either taken orally or injected into your system. These are steroids that enter your entire system. They reduce inflammation in your entire body. Our goal is they reduce inflammation in your lungs. It usually takes about an hours for them to take effect. But, once they do, your breathing usually starts to get better. The problem is, since they enter your entire system, you are likely to experience systemic side effects.

Inhaled corticosteroids (ICS)

These are inhaled, and thereby are directly applied to airways. They reduce inflammation only in your airways. Because of this, the medicine stays out of your system and side effects tend to be negligible. Examples here include fluticasone (Flovent), mometasone (Asmanex), and beclomethasone (Qvar).

What to make of this?

These are your basic terms you will come across regarding COPD medicine. Now you know what they mean.

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