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Your doctor will prescribe the COPD medicines that are right for you. To help you manage your COPD medicines your doctor may also give you a COPD action plan that explains what you should do when you are not feeling well.
COPD medications can reduce your symptoms and reduce your risk of having a COPD flare-up. Your health-care provider will prescribe medications to help you manage your COPD. You may also be given a written COPD action plan that explains what steps you can take when your COPD symptoms get worse.
It is important to take your COPD medications as prescribed. If you have any questions about medication side effects, ask your health-care provider or pharmacist.
If you have COPD, your main symptom might be shortness of breath. You could get short of breath when you exercise, when you do chores, when you have a cold, or for no known reason.
Bronchodilator medications open up the airways (breathing tubes) in your lungs. When your airways are more open, it’s easier to breathe. Your health-care provider may prescribe more than one kind of bronchodilator to treat your COPD.
There are two main types of bronchodilators:
1. Beta2-agonists, for example:
2. Anticholinergics, for example:
Some bronchodilators work quickly while others take a little longer to work.
Rapid-onset bronchodilators (also called quick-relief inhalers) act quickly and start to relieve shortness of breath within minutes. They are often used as needed, to help relieve sudden shortness of breath. Quick-relief medications usually come in a blue inhaler such as Airomir®, Bricanyl® and Ventolin®. Keep your quick-relief inhaler with you at all times so that you have quick access when you need it.
Theophylline medications work by relaxing your airways. Although not commonly used, they may be prescribed in combination with other bronchodilators. Theophylline medications can cause many possible side effects. If you are taking a theophylline medication you may need to see your health-care provider regularly to make sure the amount in your blood is not too high.
Combination inhalers combine two different medications into one inhaler. Combination inhalers can be more convenient since you won’t have to use two different inhalers. Examples of combination inhalers with two bronchodilators include:
Examples of combination inhalers with corticosteroid and a long-acting bronchodilator include:
Corticosteroid medications also come as pills (e.g., Medrol®, Prednisone®). Corticosteroid pills have many more possible side effects than inhaled corticosteroids. Corticosteroid pills are often used for short periods of time, usually when you have a COPD flare-up. However, in some cases they may need to be taken on a regular basis if your health-care provider feels that you would benefit from them. If you need to take corticosteroid pills on a regular basis, your health-care provider will work with you to keep you on the lowest dose necessary.
COPD flare-ups can be caused by viral infections (e.g., the flu) or bacterial infections (e.g, bacterial pneumonia). If you have a bacterial infection, you may be prescribed an antibiotic. If you have a viral infection, antibiotics will not help.
It’s important to take your antibiotics as directed by your health-care provider. If antibiotics are not taken as prescribed, infections can sometimes become stronger and harder to treat.
Your health-care provider may give you an antibiotic prescription to have available for when you feel you are having a COPD flare-up or lung attack (exacerbation). If you have a COPD action plan, it can help guide you on when to start using the antibiotics.
Daxas® (roflumilast) is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pill. It may be prescribed if you have severe COPD associated with chronic bronchitis (cough, sputum) and you have frequent COPD flare-ups or lung attacks (exacerbations).
Regular low oxygen levels in your blood is called hypoxemia (hi-pox-eem-ee-a). In order to know if you require oxygen, your health-care provider will order a test called an arterial blood gas.
Oxygen is only prescribed when the oxygen level in your blood stays below a normal range. Most people with COPD feel short of breath due to the level of lung disease and being able to breathe out stale air, yet have a normal oxygen level in their blood. Therefore if you feel short of breath, it does not necessarily mean that your oxygen level is low.
Research shows that the main benefit from oxygen therapy is that it can help you live longer when you have a low blood oxygen level and you use it at least 15 hours per day. For some people, oxygen therapy may help reduce shortness of breath if part of the reason for your shortness of breath is due to low oxygen levels.
Learn more about supplemental oxygen with our Oxygen and COPD fact sheet.
Lung transplantation may be an option for some people with very advanced COPD who meet certain criteria and do not smoke. If a person qualifies for a lung transplant, they are put on a wait list. How long the wait might be depends on the availability of organs.