Part II: Treatment of COPD
The goal of COPD treatment – no matter how severe the disease – is to improve symptoms, decrease the frequency and severity of flare-ups, and improve tolerance to exercise and quality of life. You and your doctor will work together to determine the best course of treatment that meets your individual needs.
The single most important aspect of COPD treatment and prevention is smoking cessation. Studies have found combining medications, such as nicotine replacement therapy and other quit medications, and counseling significantly increases quit and long-term abstinence rates. If you smoke, be sure to talk to your doctor as soon as possible about developing a smoking cessation treatment plan.
Bronchodilators are medications that relax and widen the breathing passages making it easier to breathe. They are an essential part of COPD treatment and are preferably given through an inhaler or a device called a nebulizer. Bronchodilators are used as needed, for rapid symptom relief, and/or on a daily basis, to better-control your symptoms over time.
Some patients benefit from inhaled corticosteroids, commonly referred to as steroids. Regular treatment with inhaled steroids decreases inflammation in the air tubes of the lungs resulting in fewer symptoms, improved lung function, fewer exacerbations, and a better quality of life.
Remember: steroids may increase the risk of infection and like any prescribed medication, should only be taken under the advice and direction of your doctor. Additionally, long-term treatment with oral steroids is associated with increased risk of infection and other adverse side effects and is not widely recommended.
Combination Inhaled Bronchodilator/Corticosteroid Therapy
In some cases, being treated with a bronchodilator and a steroid concurrently may be more effective than being treated with one or the other, alone. Your doctor will determine if you are a candidate for combination therapy.
Inflammation plays a starring role in the development of many diseases, COPD included. Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors (PDE4s) help decrease inflammation in COPD and may reduce the frequency of COPD flare-ups.
People with COPD are more prone to developing lung infections. An infection in the lungs can be caused by a virus or bacteria. If you develop an infection that is bacterial in nature, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics.
It’s important to note that antibiotics should be taken until they’re completely gone. Don’t stop treatment with an antibiotic because you’re feeling better.
An annual flu vaccine reduces the risk of serious illness and death in COPD and is recommended for all patients (unless your doctor tells you otherwise). In addition, if you’re 65 or older, talk to your doctor about whether you need a pneumonia vaccine.
Additional Treatment Recommendations
Medications comprise only one aspect of COPD treatment. Other treatment options your doctor may recommend include:
- Pulmonary rehabilitation – participation in a pulmonary rehabilitation program improves symptoms, tolerance to exercise, and quality of life in COPD at any stage. For some people, it may also increase survival. For more information about pulmonary rehab, talk to your health care provider.
- Oxygen therapy – supplemental oxygen has many benefits, including increasing energy, improving mood and sleep, decreasing the sensation of breathlessness, and improving survival (for some COPD patients). Remember, if your doctor has prescribed oxygen therapy, OxygenMD has the perfect solution for all your oxygen needs. Read more about supplemental oxygen and COPD in Section V: More about COPD and Oxygen Therapy.
- CPAP – also known as continuous positive airway pressure, CPAP machines may be used with, or without, supplemental oxygen to keep the air tubes open resulting in increased oxygen and decreased carbon dioxide levels in the blood. In some cases, CPAP may prevent the need for a breathing machine.
- Lung surgery – people who don’t respond to standard medical treatment and who meet very specific criteria may be candidates for lung surgery. If lung surgery is an option, your doctor will refer you to a lung surgeon.