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How is COPD Treated? Medications and Lifestyle Changes

Friday 10 May 2024
6 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. COPD Treatment

II. COPD Medications

i. Bronchodilators

ii. Anti-Inflammatory Medication

iii. Combination Medicine

III. Managing COPD with Lifestyle Changes

IV. Treating COPD Exacerbations

V. Conclusion

If you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you likely have a lot of questions about what comes next. While COPD is a progressive disease that currently has no cure, the good news is there are many effective options to relieve symptoms, improve quality of life, and slow disease progression.

In this article, we’ll provide an overview of COPD treatment options. We’ll discuss COPD medications, managing COPD exacerbations, and practical lifestyle changes to manage this disease.

COPD Treatment

Living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can be challenging, but with the right treatment plan, many people find they are able to better manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life. [1]

While there is currently no cure for COPD, a variety of treatment options exist that can help:

  • Control symptoms
  • Slow disease progression
  • Reduce exacerbations
  • Maintain an active lifestyle [1]

The key is working closely with your healthcare team to find the right combination of therapies tailored for you. COPD treatment usually involves a combination of medications and lifestyle changes. [1]

COPD Medications

COPD inhalers on a table

If you have COPD, there are several types of medications your doctor may prescribe to help you breathe easier and stay as healthy as possible. The key is finding the right mix and dosage for your specific needs. With some trial and error - as well as good communication with your doctor - you can get on a regimen that will help manage your symptoms.

Your doctor may prescribe the following types of COPD medications to control your symptoms and prevent exacerbations:

  • Bronchodilator
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Combination Medications [2]


COPD treatment often involves the use of bronchodilators, which are inhalers that help you breathe more easily. There are two main types of bronchodilators that work in different ways to relax the muscles around your airways. [2]

  • Beta-2 agonists relax the tightened muscles surrounding your airways so air can flow more freely.
  • Anticholinergics prevent the muscles around your airways from tightening. This helps keep your airways open and makes it easier to cough up mucus. [2]

Both beta-2 agonists and anticholinergics come in short-acting and long-acting forms.

  • Short-acting bronchodilators provide quick relief and are used on an as-needed basis to address sudden symptoms.
  • Long-acting bronchodilators take longer to take effect but offer relief for a more extended period, making them suitable for individuals experiencing ongoing COPD symptoms. [2]

Examples of short-acting bronchodilators include:

Examples of long-acting bronchodilators include:

Anti-Inflammatory Medication

Managing inflammation is key for those living with COPD. The airways can become swollen and irritated, leading to breathing difficulties. Fortunately, corticosteroids can help manage this inflammation. [2]

There are two types of corticosteroids used in COPD treatment:

  • Inhaled corticosteroids, commonly called ICS, are taken directly into the lungs through an inhaler. ICS reduces swelling in the air passages and decreases mucus production. They are especially helpful for people with more significant COPD symptoms. [2]
  • Corticosteroid pills, like prednisone, are used for shorter periods of time, particularly during COPD flare-ups. However, they may be prescribed for regular use if inhalers alone are not providing sufficient relief. [2]

It’s important to note that inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) are not used alone for COPD. Instead, they are combined with a long-acting bronchodilator (LABA). [2] Examples of inhalers that combine an ICS and LABA include:

Combination Medicine

For some patients with COPD, using a single inhaler may not be enough to adequately control symptoms. In these cases, combining multiple medications in one inhaler can provide better relief and make it easier to manage COPD on a daily basis. [2]

  • Combination therapy: Two different medications are combined in a single inhaler. Common pairings include an inhaled corticosteroid (ICS) plus a long-acting beta-agonist (LABA), a long-acting muscarinic antagonist (LAMA) plus a LABA, or a short-acting beta-agonist (SABA) plus a short-acting muscarinic antagonist (SAMA). Examples of combination inhalers are Advair and Symbicort.
  • Triple Therapy: These COPD medications contain an ICS, a LAMA, and a LABA in one inhaler. People who may benefit from triple therapy include those with limited airflow, worsening symptoms, high eosinophil counts, or a history of frequent COPD exacerbations. An example of a triple therapy inhaler is Trelegy Ellipta. [2]

Managing COPD with Lifestyle Changes

a man rejecting a cigarette

Living with COPD poses daily challenges, but making positive lifestyle changes can help you better manage symptoms and improve your overall quality of life.

  • Stop smoking: If you smoke, quitting is one of the most important things you can do. Tobacco smoke severely damages the lungs over time and is the primary cause of COPD. By quitting, you can dramatically slow further deterioration of your lung function and notice improvements like less coughing and wheezing.
  • Stay out of the heat: For some individuals with COPD, hot and humid summer weather can make breathing more challenging. To minimize discomfort during these times, try to move quickly from one air-conditioned environment to another.
  • Avoid exposure to air pollutants: These irritants come from sources like dust, pollen, fumes, cleaning products, fragrances, and more. Minimizing contact with them will help decrease COPD exacerbations. [3]

Treating COPD Exacerbations

Living with COPD means coping with good days and bad days. But if you suddenly feel much more short of breath and your cough worsens for over 48 hours, you could be having an exacerbation. Exacerbations are flare-ups where COPD symptoms intensify, often due to a lung infection or exposure to smoke or pollution. [4]

It's critical to contact your doctor right away if you think an exacerbation is happening. When treated promptly with antibiotics or steroids, over 80% of exacerbations can be managed without hospitalization. [4]

However, each exacerbation causes scarring in your lungs that builds up over time. Because of this, preventing exacerbations is the best way to avoid long-term damage. You can lower your risk of exacerbations by:

  • Sticking to your COPD treatment plan.
  • Asking your doctor about extra or alternative treatments if symptoms persist.
  • Avoiding irritants like smoke, pollution, and strong scents.
  • Staying active with exercise, relaxation, and good breathing habits. [4]


Receiving a COPD diagnosis can be overwhelming. However, there are many effective treatment options available today that can help you manage your symptoms and prevent your COPD from getting worse. The key is to work closely with your doctor to find the right treatment plan for you.

While COPD is a progressive disease, the treatments available aim to slow that progression down. By sticking to your treatment plan, making lifestyle changes, and monitoring your condition carefully, many people with COPD can enjoy full and active lives.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.