How is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) managed?

COPD treatment focuses on relieving symptoms, such as coughing and breathing problems, and avoiding respiratory infections. Your provider may recommend:

  • Bronchodilators: These medicines relax airways. Delivered through a mist you inhale, bronchodilators help you breathe easier.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications: Doctors commonly prescribe steroids to lower inflammation in the lungs. You inhale steroids in a mist form (nebulizer or inhaler) or take them by swallowing a pill.
  • Supplemental oxygen: If you have low blood oxygen (hypoxemia), you may need a portable oxygen tank to improve your oxygen levels.
  • Antibiotics: COPD makes you prone to lung infections, which can further damage your weakened lungs. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to stop a bacterial infection.
  • Vaccinations: Respiratory infections are more dangerous when you have COPD. It’s especially important to get shots to prevent flu and pneumonia.
  • Rehabilitation: Rehabilitation programs focus on teaching effective breathing strategies to lessen shortness of breath and on conditioning. When maintained, fitness can increase the amount you can do with the lungs you have.
  • Anticholinergics relax the muscle bands that tighten around the airways. This action opens the airways, letting more air in and out of the lungs to improve breathing. Anticholinergics also help clear mucus from the lungs. As the airways open, the mucus moves more freely and can therefore be coughed out more easily. Anticholinergics work differently and more slowly than fast-acting bronchodilators.
  • Leukotriene modifiers might be used. Leukotrienes are chemicals that occur naturally in our bodies and cause tightening of airway muscles, and production of mucus and fluid. These newer drugs work by blocking the chemicals and decreasing these reactions. These medications help improve airflow and reduce symptoms in some people.
  • Expectorants thin mucus in the airways so it can be coughed out more easily. Take these medications with about 8 ounces of water.
  • Antihistamines relieve stuffy heads, watery eyes, and sneezing. Although effective at relieving these symptoms, antihistamines can dry the air passages, making breathing difficult, as well as causing difficulty when coughing up excess mucus. Take these medications with food to reduce upset stomach.
  • Antivirals might be prescribed to treat or prevent illnesses caused by viruses, most frequently to treat or prevent influenza ("the flu"). Influenza is particularly dangerous for people who have COPD.

For severe COPD, your provider may suggest you consider a clinical trial (tests of new treatments) or lung surgery, if you’re a candidate.

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