COPD Lexicon: Pharmacology Terms To Know

There are lots of medicines for treating COPD. Some help end COPD flare-ups. Others are meant to prevent flare-ups and control COPD. Here are some of the basic terms regarding COPD pharmacology.


These are small, handheld devices for inhaling medicine. They are usually small and fit nicely into pockets or purses. They make it convenient to carry COPD medicine with you wherever you go. They are generally easy to use.

Metered Dose Inhalers (MDI)

These are inhalers that offer a metered dose of medicine. The medicine is stored in pressurized containers. A good example of an MDI is albuterol (Ventolin, Proventil, ProAir).

Dry Powdered Inhaler (DPI)

These are inhalers that allow you to inhale powdered medicine. The Advair Diskus is a good example of a DPI.


These are holding chambers that attach to the mouthpiece of MDIs. They are usually round, hollow devices. They help improve your coordination with MDIs. They improve the distribution of medicine to your airways. They make sure more of the medicine gets to your lower airways where it’s needed. They may also help to reduce side effects of inhaled medicine. We, respiratory therapists, recommend that all MDIs be used with spacers.


These are medicines that dilate airways to make breathing easier. There are two types of bronchodilators. They are called beta-adrenergics and muscarinics.


A medicine that has the same action as neurotransmitters.

Beta Adrenergics

These are medicines that are usually inhaled. Once inhaled, they are attracted to and attach to beta 2 adrenergic receptors lining airway walls. They tell smooth muscles wrapped around airways to relax. This “dilates airways. It opens airways up to make breathing easier. Good examples are albuterol (Ventolin, Proventil, ProAir) and levalbuterol (Xopenex).


A medicine that has the opposite effect as a neurotransmitter. A medicine that blocks the effects of a neurotransmitter. For example, acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that binds with muscarinic receptors lining airways. It causes airways to constrict. It can make breathing difficult.

Muscarinic Agonists

These are medicines that are also inhaled. Once inhaled, they are attracted to and attach to muscarinic receptors lining airways. This prevents acetylcholine from binding to these receptors. The result is that they dilate airways to make breathing easier.


A term to describe medicines that mimic muscarinic agonists. Examples of muscarinics are Atrovent and Spiriva.


It’s any COPD medicine that has a short duration of effect. For example, the effects of Ventolin generally only last for 4-6 hours. The effects of Xopenex last 6-8 hours.


It’s any COPD medicine that has a long duration of effect. It continues working for up to 12-24 hours. These are medicines that typically only need to be taken once or twice per day.

Rescue Medicine

Any medicine that opens airways right now. Ventolin and Xopenex are considered rescue medicine. These medicines are typically only used when you’re having an acute flare-up.

Controller Medcines

These are your medicines you take every day to prevent COPD flare-ups. They keep your airways open long-term.

Short-Acting Beta Adrenergic (SABAs)

These are beta adrenergics that open airways right now. They usually open airways within a few seconds. They are often called rescue medicine. The downside is this effect is short-lived: it only lasts 4-8 hours. Good examples of SABAs are albuterol and levalbuterol.

Long-Acting Beta Adrenergic

Any beta-adrenergic that lasts long-term. These are generally considered COPD controller medicines.

Short-Acting Muscarinics

These are muscarinics that last short-term. A good example is Atrovent.

Long-Acting Muscarinic (LAM)
These are muscarinics that last long-term. A good example of Spiriva.


These are medicines that reduce airway inflammation. Good examples include Flovent and Qvar. They are generally offered as one ingredient of combination inhalers (see below).

Systemic Steroids

These are corticosteroids that enter your entire system. They are either injected into a muscle, vein or taken by mouth. They are usually only used during acute flare-ups. They usually only used to end flare-ups.

Inhaled Corticosteroids

These are corticosteroids that are inhaled. They are usually taken every day and considered COPD controller medicines.

Combination Inhalers

These are inhalers that combine 2 or more COPD medicines. For example, Combivent contains a SABA and a mucolytic. Advair contains a LABA and an ICS. Symbicort, Dulera, and Breo are similar inhalers. Tudorza contains a LABA and a LAM.

What to make of this?

Defined here are your most basic pharmacological terms. In an upcoming post, I will define some more. So, stay tuned!!!

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