COPD Medicines

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2023 | Last updated: July 2023

Medicines are a key part of any treatment plan for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Your doctor should work to find the right combination of medicines to treat your condition in the best way possible.1

Some drugs for COPD are maintenance medicines. This means they are used to help control and prevent the symptoms of stable COPD. These are symptoms you have all or most of the time.1,2

Some medicines are used to treat symptoms that suddenly get worse during COPD flare-ups. Others are not used to treat the symptoms of the disease itself. Instead, they are used to treat related conditions that people with COPD often have.1,2

Medicines that may be used to treat COPD include:2

  • Bronchodilators (beta-agonists and anticholinergics)
  • Corticosteroids
  • Combination therapies
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) inhibitors
  • Methylxanthines
  • Antibiotics
  • Mucolytics
  • Medicines to help stop smoking
  • Antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs

What are bronchodilators?

Bronchodilators are usually an important part of a COPD treatment plan. People with COPD can have bronchospasms, or the sudden tightening of the muscles around the airways. This makes the airways too narrow for enough air to pass through. This can make it hard to breathe.1,2

Bronchodilators work by relaxing the muscles around the airways. This prevents or relieves bronchospasms. They typically come in inhalers. There are two types of bronchodilators, beta-agonists and anticholinergics. Bronchodilators can be short- or long-acting. Short-acting drugs can be good for the sudden relief of symptoms or before activities. Long-acting drugs can manage symptoms throughout the day.1,2

What are corticosteroids?

Corticosteroids are another type of medicine that can help reduce inflammation and make breathing easier. They can take longer to work than bronchodilators, and people may not notice the effects right away. Corticosteroids can be inhaled, or they can be taken orally in a tablet or liquid. Corticosteroids may also be used to treat flare-ups. These medicines are usually reserved for people with certain subtypes of COPD or frequent flares.1,2,4

What are combination therapies?

Some medicines combine bronchodilators, anticholinergics, and steroids. Still others combine only anticholinergics and bronchodilators. These are called combination therapies. These may work better to control some people’s symptoms.1

What are phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors?

Phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) inhibitors are a treatment option for certain people with severe COPD. PDE4 inhibitors reduce inflammation and relax the airways. They may also be able to prevent flare-ups.1,2

What are methylxanthines?

Methylxanthines are an older type of bronchodilator for treating COPD. They work by reducing swelling in the airways and relaxing the muscles that surround them. Methylxanthines are not used as often as other types of bronchodilators since they can cause serious side effects.2

What are antibiotics?

Flare-ups, or exacerbations, are a sudden worsening in COPD symptoms. Flare-ups are most commonly caused by a respiratory infection. Antibiotics can be used to treat a bacterial infection that might cause a flare-up.5

What are mucolytic drugs?

People with COPD overproduce mucus. This mucus can clog the airways and make it difficult to breathe. Mucolytic drugs work by thinning mucus. This makes it easier to cough up and clear the airways.2

What medicines can help a person stop smoking?

Quitting smoking is the most important thing people with COPD can do for their health. However, smoking is addictive, and it can be difficult to quit. There are 2 types of medicines that may make quitting easier.6

Nicotine replacement products deliver a small amount of nicotine into the body. This replaces the nicotine from smoking and can make quitting easier. There are also drugs that can decrease someone’s urge to smoke without delivering any nicotine at all.6

What are antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicines?

Many people with COPD experience anxiety or depression at some point during the disease. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs can help treat these conditions. They can also improve quality of life.2

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