A diagnosis of COPD is not the end of the world. For all stages of disease, effective therapy is available which can control symptoms, reduce your risk of complications and exacerbations, and improve your ability to lead an active life.
The most essential step in any treatment plan for COPD is to stop all smoking. It's the only way to keep COPD from getting worse — which can eventually reduce your ability to breathe. But quitting smoking isn't easy. And this task may seem particularly daunting if you've tried to quit and have been unsuccessful. Talk to your doctor about nicotine replacement products and medications that might help, as well as how to handle relapses. It's also a good idea to avoid secondhand smoke exposure whenever possible.
Doctors use several kinds of medications to treat the symptoms and complications of COPD. You may take some medications on a regular basis and others as needed:
Bronchodilators. These medications — which usually come in an inhaler — relax the muscles around your airways. This can help relieve coughing and shortness of breath and make breathing easier. Depending on the severity of your disease, you may need a short-acting bronchodilator before activities, a long-acting bronchodilator that you use every day, or both.
Short-acting bronchodilators include albuterol (ProAir HFA, Ventolin HFA, others), levalbuterol (Xopenex), and ipratropium (Atrovent). The long-acting bronchodilators include tiotropium (Spiriva), salmeterol (Serevent), formoterol (Foradil, Perforomist), arformoterol (Brovana), indacaterol (Arcapta) and aclidinium (Tudorza).
- Inhaled steroids. Inhaled corticosteroid medications can reduce airway inflammation and help prevent exacerbations. Side effects may include bruising, oral infections and hoarseness. These medications are useful for people with frequent exacerbations of COPD. Fluticasone (Flovent) and budesonide (Pulmicort) are examples of inhaled steroids.
- Combination inhalers. Some medications combine bronchodilators and inhaled steroids. Salmeterol and fluticasone (Advair) and formoterol and budesonide (Symbicort) are examples of combination inhalers.
- Oral steroids. For people who have a moderate or severe acute exacerbation, oral steroids prevent further worsening of COPD. However, these medications can have serious side effects, such as weight gain, diabetes, osteoporosis, cataracts and an increased risk of infection.
- Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors. A new type of medication approved for people with severe COPD is roflumilast (Daliresp), a phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitor. This drug decreases airway inflammation and relaxes the airways. Common side effects include diarrhea and weight loss.
- Theophylline. This very inexpensive medication helps improve breathing and prevents exacerbations. Side effects may include nausea, fast heartbeat and tremor.
- Antibiotics. Respiratory infections, such as acute bronchitis, pneumonia and influenza, can aggravate COPD symptoms. Antibiotics help fight acute exacerbations. The antibiotic azithromycin prevents exacerbations, but it isn't clear whether this is due to its antibiotic effect or its anti-inflammatory properties.
Doctors often use these additional therapies for people with moderate or severe COPD:
- Oxygen therapy. If there isn't enough oxygen in your blood, you may need supplemental oxygen. There are several devices to deliver oxygen to your lungs, including lightweight, portable units that you can take with you to run errands and get around town. Some people with COPD use oxygen only during activities or while sleeping. Others use oxygen all the time. Oxygen therapy can improve quality of life and is the only COPD therapy proven to extend life. Talk to your doctor about your needs and options.
- Pulmonary rehabilitation program. These programs typically combine education, exercise training, nutrition advice and counseling. You'll work with a variety of specialists, who can tailor your rehabilitation program to meet your needs. Pulmonary rehabilitation may shorten hospitalizations, increase your ability to participate in everyday activities and improve your quality of life. Talk to your doctor about referral to a program.
Even with ongoing treatment, you may experience times when symptoms become worse for days or weeks. This is called an acute exacerbation, and it may lead to lung failure if you don't receive prompt treatment. Exacerbations may be caused by a respiratory infection, air pollution, or other triggers of inflammation. Whatever the cause, it's important to seek prompt medical help if you notice a sustained increase in coughing, a change in your mucus or if you have a harder time breathing.
When exacerbations occur, you may need additional medications (such as antibiotics or steroids), supplemental oxygen or treatment in the hospital. Once symptoms improve, you'll want to take measures to prevent future exacerbations, such as taking inhaled steroids or long-acting bronchodilators, getting your annual flu vaccine and avoiding air pollution whenever possible.
Surgery is an option for some people with some forms of severe emphysema who aren't helped sufficiently by medications alone:
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- Lung volume reduction surgery. In this surgery, your surgeon removes small wedges of damaged lung tissue. This creates extra space in your chest cavity so that the remaining lung tissue and the diaphragm work more efficiently. In some people, this surgery can improve quality of life and prolong survival.
- Lung transplant. Lung transplantation may be an option for certain people who meet specific criteria. Transplantation can improve your ability to breathe and to be active, but it's a major operation that has significant risks, such as organ rejection, and it obligates you to take lifelong immune-suppressing medications.