There are several medications available to help you treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Each person’s COPD is different, that is why it is important for you and your healthcare team to work together to create a treatment plan that works for you based on your symptoms and needs.
How COPD Medications Work
People living with COPD may be treated with a combination of quick relief and long- acting or controller medications. The goal is for you to take the right medicine at the right time to best manage your COPD.
Quick relief (or short acting) medicine works to relax your airways and help you breathe easier. This type of medication works quickly and should be taken if you have symptoms.
Long-acting medicine reduces the swelling and inflammation in your airways and prevents symptoms. These medications need to be taken every day, even when you feel well.
Types of COPD Medications
The following types of medicines are commonly prescribed to treat COPD. It is important to follow your healthcare provider’s advice about your treatment.
Bronchodilators relax the muscles around the airways or breathing tubes which work to help open the airways. When the airways are more open, it helps you breathe easier.
Bronchodilators can be short-acting or long-acting.
- Short-acting bronchodilators work quickly so that you get relief from symptoms fast, but they wear off in a few hours.
- Long-acting bronchodilators provide relief for many hours, but the effect may be slower. Long-acting bronchodilators need to be taken every day, even when you feel well
Types of Bronchodilator Medications
Beta2-Agonists work to relax the tightened muscles around your airways. This opens the airway and makes breathing easier. Short-acting beta-agonists (SABA) work within minutes but last only 4-6 hours. Long-acting beta-agonists (LABA) may be slow to start working but can last up to 12 to 24 hours so are used to maintain open airways throughout the day or the night. LABAs need to be taken every day.
Anticholinergics work to prevent the muscles around your airways from tightening so keep the airways open and help clear mucus from your lungs. This combination allows your cough to expel mucus more easily. There are short-acting anticholinergic (SAMA) and long-acting anticholinergics (LAMA).
Anti-inflammatory medicine or an inhaled corticosteroid (ICS) work to decrease inflammation, swelling, and mucus production inside the airways. Inhaled corticosteroids alone are not recommended for COPD however it is recommended as a combination therapy in people with moderate to severe disease with increased exacerbation risk, asthma and COPD overlap, or high blood eosinophil count.
Corticosteroids can also be swallowed as a pill and are usually prescribed for short periods of time when your symptoms are getting more severe. Steroids can have serious side effects so you will be monitored by your healthcare provider if prescribed this medication.
In many patients with COPD your healthcare provider may recommend combination therapy. Combination therapy includes two different medications in one inhaler or nebulizer treatment. Combination medications can be more effective and also can simplify your medication regimen.
Combination medications may include
- inhaled corticosteroid (ICS) and long-acting beta2-agonist (LABA)
- long- acting muscarinic antagonist (LAMA) and long-acting beta2-agonist (LABA)
- short acting beta2 agonists (SABA) and short acting muscarinic antagonists (SAMA)
In people with severe air flow limitation, more symptoms, blood eosinophil counts ≥100 cells/μL or with a history of COPD exacerbations, your healthcare provider may recommend triple therapy. Triple therapy combines an inhaled corticosteroid (ICS), long-acting beta-agonists (LABA) and long-acting anticholinergics (LAMA) in one medication.
People with COPD may experience flare-ups or exacerbations with more coughing, more mucus and more shortness of breath. This is often caused by bacterial or viral infections. Your healthcare provider may give you an antibiotic or steroid to keep on hand and fill for when you have an exacerbation.
Make sure you take all of the antibiotic exactly as prescribed. You may start to feel better during the antibiotic course, but you should take the antibiotic for as many days as it was prescribed. Stopping the antibiotic course early may allow the infection to come back or become resistant to the antibiotic. Learn more about preventing COPD exacerbations to reduce your exposure to triggers that can make your COPD worse.
While everyone can get an infectious respiratory disease like the flu or COVID-19, people living with COPD have a higher risk of serious complications and hospitalizations. COPD increases your risk for infection from respiratory diseases like influenza (flu), COVID-19 and pneumonia. Vaccines help protect and prevent you from the disease. Talk to your healthcare provider to make sure you are up to date on your vaccinations. Learn about vaccinations recommended for COPD.
Other medications may be needed if your COPD gets worse. If your COPD symptoms are getting worse, follow the steps on your COPD Action Plan or contact your healthcare provider right away.
Getting the Most Out of Your COPD Medication
Medication does not cure COPD, but it can help improve your symptoms, reduce frequency and severity of flare ups or exacerbations, and help you stay more active. The goal is for you to be able to take the right medicine at the right time with the right technique. This will help you to feel your best.
COPD medicines can be delivered through different medication devices like a metered-dose inhaler, nebulizer, or breath-actuated device. Some COPD medication can be in pill form. Your healthcare team will work with you to determine the best method to deliver your COPD medicines.
Creating a Medication Schedule
Managing COPD may require several different types of medicine that need to be taken daily, and it can be confusing especially if you are taking other medicines for other health conditions.
- Make a medication schedule showing all the medications you take and when each should be taken
- Ask a trusted friend or family member to help you stay organized
- Connect taking your medication with routine habits like brushing your teeth or after eating certain meals
- Set an alarm or calendar reminder in your phone
- Use a weekly pill box that has sections for morning, afternoon and evening pills
- Talk to your healthcare provider, insurance company, or local home care agencies about in home medication management programs.
- When traveling, keep your medications with you in your carry on and keep copies of your prescriptions.
If you are still experiencing COPD symptoms, uncertain if you are taking the medication correctly, or experiencing side effects from the medication, discuss this with your healthcare provider. At each visit with your healthcare provider, review your medications and your medication inhalation technique.
Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.
Page last updated: April 28, 2023