Treatments for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a serious lung disease that makes it hard to breathe - but can be treated. Current treatments for COPD cannot repair the damage to the lungs. However, they can slow further damage and improve COPD symptoms. This makes it easier to breathe and feel better.


Medicines can improve COPD symptoms. They must be taken as directed by your doctor. COPD medicines usually help relax the muscles around the lungs' breathing tubes, reduce swelling in the breathing tubes, and reduce mucus production. Controlling these symptoms makes for easier breathing.


These medicines help relax the muscles around the lungs' breathing tubes. This allows them to open up or expand. This can reduce coughing, improve shortness or breath and make breathing easier. Bronchodilators are usually breathed directly into the lungs with an inhaler (a device to breathe the medicine in).


Also known as steroids, these drugs reduce swelling in the breathing tubes making breathing easier. They can be taken in pill form (prednisone) or with an inhaler. Inhaled corticosteroids are much less likely to cause side effects. (Note: these are not the same type of steroids that some athletes take to give them bigger muscles.) Oral/systemic steroids are only used in COPD for a short time during a flare-up.


Thes drugs are used to treat lung infections caused by bacteria, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. You should also get the flu shot each year to help prevent lung infections. These infections can make your COPD much worse. Also talk with your doctor about getting a pneumonia shot. This shot lasts for several days. Sometimes your doctor may prescribe a rescue medicine. Rescue medicines are used when you have an episode where you're so out of breath and your chest is so tight, that you need help quickly. The most common is albuterol. It is a short-acting bronchodilator that can provide relief in five minutes.

Oxygen Rehabilitation for COPD

Severe COPD will reduce the lungs' ability to put oxygen into the blood to be carried throughout the body. An elderly person's doctor can measure the oxygen in the blood by using a pulse oximeter. This is a small device that fits snugly on the finger. It measures how many red blood cells are carrying oxygen. If the level of oxygen in the blood is too low, it can be confirmed by an arterial blood gas test (ABG). If so, your doctor may prescribe oxygen therapy.

Oxygen Therapy for COPD

Shortness of breath does not necessarily mean you need to be on oxygen. Many people who have severe shortness of breath do not have low oxygen levels in there blood. Also, many patients who have low oxygen levels do not always feel breathless. Oxygen is usually ordered if the oxygen in the body or blood is low during sleep, exercise, during a 6-minute walk test and/or while you are not active.

Oxygen is a medical treatment. It requires a doctor's prescription that will describe exactly how much oxygen is needed for different activities such as exercise and sleep. It is very important to use the amount of oxygen ordered. A respiratory therapist can help you learn exactly how to use oxygen. (Oxygen supply companies may provide a respiratory therapist.) There are several types of oxygen systems. There are many factors that help the doctor decide which system is right for you. These include how much oxygen is needed, when it is needed, the person's daily activity level, where the person lives, the total cost of the system, and what medical insurance the person has.

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Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation is a treatment program. It provides exercise training, education about COPD, tips on how to complete everyday activities without becoming so short of breath and advice on how to live better with your disease. Many different types of medical professionals work with you in the program. These include doctors, nurses, physical therapists, exercise specialists, and dietitians. Dieticians are individuals who can teach you about healthy food choices. You will work with this team to create a special program for you. Pulmonary rehab programs are available in most communities and often paid for by insurance.

Flare-Ups Due to COPD

There will be some times when  COPD symptoms suddenly get worse. These flare-ups are called exacerbations. They are usually caused by an infection in the lungs. Flare-ups can also be caused by an infection in the lungs. Flare-ups can also be caused by a change in the outside temperature or increased air pollution.

Symptoms of a Flare-Up

  • Increased cough
  • Increased shortness of breath
  • Increased mucus production
  • Wheezing
  • Shallow or rapid breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased body temperature
  • Impaired mental status
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Change in mucus color

Call the doctor at the earliest sign of a flare-up. Treatments may include different medicines from the ones you are already taking. During a flare up, the doctor may suggest use of nebulized medicines. Many of the bronchodilators and corticosteroid medicines are prescribed for use in a nebulizer. This is a device that turns liquid medicine into vapor so it can be inhaled. If the doctor prescribes these drugs, ask the home oxygen supplier or pharmacy for an appropriate nebulizer. Most prescription plans cover nebulizers. Another option the doctor may suggest is using a short oral/systemic course of steroids, and/or a course of antibiotics.

Source: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute;

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