COPD Medicines

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

Some drugs for COPD are called 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. 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.1-3

These types of medicines can all play a role in a COPD treatment plan:1-3

What are bronchodilators?

Bronchodilators are a central part of treatment plans for most people with COPD. During bronchospasms, the muscles that surround the airways tighten up. This makes the airways too narrow for enough air to pass through. This can make it hard to breathe.1-3

Bronchodilators are inhaled drugs that can help to relieve and prevent bronchospasms by helping the muscles around the airways relax. This opens up the airways and makes breathing easier.1-3

There are several types of bronchodilator medicines:1

  • Short-acting beta-agonist bronchodilators (SABAs) – These may be called “rescue” inhalers because they can provide quick relief for sudden or severe breathing symptoms
  • Long-acting beta-agonist bronchodilators (LABAs)
  • Short-acting antimuscarinic (anticholinergic) bronchodilators (SAMAs)
  • Long-acting antimuscarinic (anticholinergic) bronchodilators (LAMAs)

What are corticosteroids?

Corticosteroids are another type of medicine commonly used to control COPD symptoms. They work by reducing the amount of swelling in the airways. This makes it easier for people to breathe. Corticosteroids can be inhaled, or they can be taken orally in a tablet or liquid.

Some people use corticosteroids daily as part of COPD maintenance therapy, especially those with more severe disease. In other cases, corticosteroids are used to treat COPD flare-ups and keep them from getting worse.1,2

What are combination therapies?

Combination therapies for COPD contain 2 or more different types of medicines delivered in a single dose. For many people, the combined drugs are an effective and convenient way to manage their symptoms.1

What are phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors?

Phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) inhibitors are a treatment option for certain people with COPD. PDE4 is an enzyme that is involved in the inflammatory process. Blocking this enzyme seems to decrease the number of flare-ups from COPD.1

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. The most common type of methylxanthine is called theophylline.1

What are antibiotics?

For people with COPD, antibiotics are often used to treat respiratory infections caused by bacteria. These infections often cause COPD flare-ups. This is why it is important to treat infections with antibiotics as quickly as possible.1,2

What are mucolytic drugs?

Some people with COPD use mucolytic drugs to thin and loosen the mucus produced by their lungs. When the mucus is too thick, it can clog the airways and become hard to clear out by coughing. Mucolytic drugs can make it easier to cough up the mucus. This clears the airways and makes breathing easier.1

What are opioids?

Opioid medicines are a type of very strong pain reliever. For some people with very severe COPD, opioids can also provide some relief for severe breathlessness. Common opioids include morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone.3

What medicines can help a person stop smoking?

Two types of medicines may help people with COPD to stop smoking. These include nicotine replacement products and prescription drugs. Nicotine replacement products deliver a small amount of nicotine into the body. This can make it easier to quit smoking. These include gum, patches, inhalers, and lozenges. Prescription drugs can decrease a person’s urge to smoke without delivering any nicotine at all.1

What are antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicines?

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

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Written by: Anna Nicholson and Emily Downward | Last reviewed: August 2021