There are many therapies and medications that can support you to live well with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and reduce symptoms, including breathlessness. Managing COPD and finding the right combination of medications for you may feel overwhelming.
Breaking down the often-complex field of COPD treatments will help empower you to have informed conversations with your doctor or pharmacist, feel more confident with your medications, and spend more of your time enjoying life.
So, let’s break down which types of treatment may be right for you!
Reliever medications are typically the best option for when you suddenly feel short of breath. They are also called short-acting bronchodilators (pronounced bronk-oh-dye-lay-tors). Bronchodilators work by helping to relax the muscles around the airways to help open them up to allow air to move in and out of the lungs more easily and reduce the feeling of shortness of breath. Reliver medicines start to work within a few minutes of inhalation and last for several hours. Reliver medicines include Ventolin, Asmol, Airomir, Bricanyl and Atrovent.
- If you are using your reliever inhaler more often than usual, talk to your doctor as this may mean that your symptoms are worsening, and your COPD Action Plan needs to be reviewed
- If you have been prescribed one, always ensure you carry your reliever inhaler with you when you leave the house to avoid stress if you suddenly feel short of breath.
As the name suggests, maintenance medications are taken daily, even when feeling well. Maintenance medications may include long-acting relievers and inhaled corticosteroids. Maintenance medications don’t provide quick relief from symptoms but work in the airway to help reduce the risk of severe flare-up or deterioration.
There are two types of long acting relievers – long-acting muscarinic antagonists (LAMA) and long-acting beta2-agonists (LABA) – but don’t worry about the complex names, both of these treatments work in different ways to help the muscles around your airways to stay relaxed.
You can be prescribed one type of long-acting reliever or you may be prescribed a combination of the two types depending on your condition. It’s always best to check which medication is right for your individual condition with your GP.
Some COPD medications contain inhaled corticosteroids in addition to reliever medication. They help to reduce inflammation in the airway.
The goal of treatment is to reduce symptoms and flare-ups. The medications prescribed to you by your doctor will be individually tailored to you based on your symptoms, history of flare-ups and your response to treatment.
- If you have been prescribed inhaled corticosteroids, always remember to gargle, rinse and spit your mouth out after inhaling to reduce the risk of throat irritation.
During a flare-up, there are medications which provide short-term, immediate relief called flare-up medicines. When taken early enough, these medicines can also reduce the severity and duration of your flare-up. Usually, this category includes antibiotics and oral steroids, and your doctor will advise what option will suit your condition best.
Antibiotics will not help manage COPD on a day-to-day basis but are prescribed if you have a flare-up due to infection, which is usually most obvious in mucus changes. Oral steroids, on the other hand, can be prescribed for a short period of time to help treat symptoms like a wheeze or breathlessness.
- If you have been prescribed antibiotics, be sure to take the full course for as long as instructed – even if/when you start to feel better
- It is always important to follow the prescribed dose by your doctor and avoid deciding when and how much medicine to take on your own.
With up to 90% of people with COPD not knowing how to use their inhaler device correctly, you are not alone if you feel lost and confused by the right medicine for your condition and how to best take it. When seeing your doctor, nurse or pharmacist, ensure you take the time to learn how to use your prescribed medicines or devices to avoid confusion. Correct use of your medicines will ensure you get the most benefit from them and ultimately, feel empowered to enjoy your life regardless of your COPD diagnosis. Check out our inhaler device technique resources and videos, here.
Download a COPD Action Plan
The COPD Action Plan is a template completed by a GP or specialist in conjunction with you to outline the best course of treatment in a flare up or when symptoms are worsening. The COPD Action plan should be reviewed with your doctor each year and after a flare-up.