Managing Your COPD Medications

There are a variety of medicines available to treat COPD. What is important to know is that there is no "best" medicine for all people. Each person's COPD is different and your doctor and healthcare team will work with you to set up the best plan for you, based upon your symptoms and your needs. By taking the right medicine at the right time, you can:

  • Breathe better
  • Do more of the things you want to do
  • Have fewer flare-ups

Often people with COPD will be on multiple medications and it can get confusing to try and manage them. Taking your medicines exactly as directed: That means the right medicine at the right time will help you feel the best. Learn how to manage your medications.

Here are the types of medicines usually prescribed for COPD:


Bronchodilators relax the muscles (bronchiThe two major branches of the tracheas (windpipe) that lead to the lungs. The trachea divides to form the right and left main bronchi (pleural of bronchus) or bronchial tubes that travel to each of the lungs. and bronchiolesThe smallest tubes branching off from each bronchus.) around the airways. When the airways are more open, it is easier to breathe. Bronchodilators can be inhaled or taken orally. They can be grouped by how long they work or how they relax the muscles. You may be prescribed one or more types. Most bronchodilators are taken using a device called an inhalerA medical device that delivers medication directly into the lungs.. This device allows the medicine to go straight to your lungs. Not all inhalers are used the same way. Ask your health care team to show you the correct way to use your inhaler so you can make sure you are getting your full dose of medication.


  • Short-Acting inhaled bronchodilators work after you take them so that you feel relief from symptoms quickly. There are two types of short-acting bronchodilators that both relax the muscles but do so in different ways: beta-agonists and anticholinergics.
  • Long-Acting inhaled bronchodilators have effects that last a long time. They should not be used for quick relief. There are two types of long-acting bronchodilators that both relax the muscles but do so in different ways: beta-agonists and anticholinergics.

Beta-Agonists are medications that relax tightened muscles around the airways, which widens the airways and makes it easier to breathe. Beta-agonists can be short-acting or long-acting. Short-acting beta-agonists work within minutes but may only last 4-6 hours. Long-acting last about 12 hours and are used more often for maintenance.

Anticholinergics stop the muscles around the airways from tightening. They also help clear mucus away from the lungs, and the open airways allow it to be coughed out more easily. Anticholinergics can be short-acting or long-acting and can be delivered by either an inhaler or a nebulizerA medical device that changes medication from a liquid to a mist so it is easier to inhaler. Sometimes called a breathing treatment..


Anti-inflammatory medicines help by reducing the swelling and mucus production inside the airways. When that inflammation is reduced, it is easier to breathe. These medicines are also called corticosteroids or steroidsMan-made drugs that mimic cortisol, a hormone that the adrenal glands produce naturally. These drugs work to decrease inflammation and reduce the activity of the immune system.. Most often these are inhaled medications.

Some corticosteroids are in pill form and usually are used for short periods of time in special circumstances such as when your symptoms are getting worse. These medications can have serious side effects, such as weight gain, diabetes, osteoporosis, cataracts and an increased risk of infection. It is important to talk to your doctor about potential side effects from medications.

Combination Medicines

Combination drugs are medications that contain two different types of medication in the same inhaler or nebulizer solution. Only a few types of combination medications are currently available. The most common combination medications contain a combination of the following:

  • short-acting beta-agonist and short-acting anticholinergic
  • long-acting beta-agonist and inhaled corticosteroid


People with COPD can have flare-ups that may be caused by bacterial or viral infections. Your doctor may want you to have a prescription for an antibiotic or an anti-viral that you keep on hand and that you will be told to get filled in the event of an infection coming on.

It is important to take any antibiotic exactly as prescribed and to take it all, even if you start to feel better before it is all used up. If you do not take it all, the infection may come back and be even stronger and harder to treat. Learn more about protecting your lungs to avoid an infection.


With COPD you are at greater risk for serious complications from influenza (flu) and pneumonia. To protect yourself against the flu you should be immunized every year. The seasonal flu virus changes slightly every year and that is why the flu shot is given every year. Find where you can get vaccinated in your area. The pneumonia vaccine is important to get at least once, and sometimes a booster shot is recommended. Ask your doctor if it is time for your pneumonia vaccine.

Medication Management Tips

COPD medicines do not cure COPD but they can help improve your symptoms.

Take your medicines exactly as directed: That means the right medicine at the right time! Set up a system that will work best for you and the people who help care for you.

  • Make a medicine chart showing what you take and when.
  • Set an alarm to ring.
  • Use a weekly pill box that has sections for each day and different times of the day.
  • Ask a friend or family member to help you with organizing your "system."
  • Connect taking your medicine with your routine habits, such as before or after certain meals or when you brush your teeth in the morning or evening.
  • Keep a day's worth of pills with you at all times so that if something unexpected comes up when you're away from home you'll be able to stick to your medication schedule.
  • When traveling, keep all of your medications with you in your carry-on bag, and keep a copy of the prescriptions for your medications.
  • It is important to rinse out your mouth with water immediately after using steroid inhalers to avoid getting a yeast infection in your throat called thrushAn infection of the mouth caused by yeast. A common side effect from some medications..

If you are having problems with your symptoms or are not sure if you are taking your medicine correctly or if you are experiencing bothersome side effects, talk to your doctor or another member of your healthcare team. They can help make sure you understand the correct way to take the medicine or may want to make some adjustments in the medicines you are taking.