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Managing Your COPD Medications

There are a variety of medicines available to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. 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 to address your symptoms and needs. By taking the right medicine at the right time, you can:

  • Breathe better
  • Do more of the things you enjoy
  • 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. See 8 tips to manage your COPD medications.

COPD medicines can be taken by mouth in a pill form, inhaled using a metered-dose inhaler, inhaled using a breath-actuated device, or inhaled using a nebulizer. Your healthcare team will help find the best method to delivery your COPD medicines. Review your technique with your healthcare provider at each visit.

Many patients with COPD will need to use a nebulizer. Learn how to use a nebulizer and how to properly clean a nebulizer.

Here are the types of medicines usually prescribed for COPD:


Bronchodilators relax the muscles around your airways, which helps keep your airways open and makes it easier to breathe. Bronchodilators often are taken through an inhaler that passes the medicine straight to your lungs. Because not all inhalers are the same, make sure to ask your healthcare team to show you how your specific inhaler works. This helps make sure you're getting a full dose of medication. Other types of bronchodilators are taken by mouth.

There are short-acting and long-acting bronchodilators. Short-acting bronchodilators work quickly so that you feel fast relief from symptoms. Long-acting bronchodilators provide longer-lasting relief than their short-acting counterparts, but they take longer to kick in. Short- and long-acting bronchodilators come in both beta-agonist and anticholinergics formulations. Here's more information about both types:

  • Beta-Agonists relax tightened muscles around your airways. This widens your airways, making it easier for you to breathe. Short-acting beta-agonists work within minutes but may only last 4-6 hours. Long-acting formulations last about 12 hours and are usually are used for maintenance.
  • Anticholinergics stop the muscles around your airways from tightening, keeping your airways open. They also help clear mucus away from your lungs. The combination of open airways and the medicine's mucus clearing ability allows you to cough out the mucus more easily. Anticholinergics come in short-acting or long-acting versions and can be delivered by either an inhaler or a nebulizer.


Anti-inflammatory medicines reduce swelling and mucus production inside your airways. When that inflammation is reduced, it is easier to breathe. These medicines also are called corticosteroids or steroids. Most often, these are inhaled medications.

Some corticosteroids come 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. 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 currently are 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 sometimes have flare-ups 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 to have filled if you have an infection.

Make sure you take any antibiotic exactly as prescribed and 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. Because the seasonal flu virus changes slightly every year, you need a new flu shot each year to protect yourself from the latest variation. 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.

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