Understand your treatment options

How to find relief from COPD

Health Monitor Staff
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You may not realize it, but you have the key to taking charge of COPD. Although there is no cure for the disease, you can help control your symptoms and even help slow the progression of COPD by taking an active role in your care. That means telling your healthcare provider how you feel and what you can or can’t do, keeping your follow-up appointments and making sure you understand how your medication works. “Healthcare providers can prescribe inhalers to open our airways, but if we don’t use those inhalers on time and correctly, they’re going to be of limited help,” notes COPD sufferer Grace Anne Koppel, who is a patient advocate along with her husband, former news anchor Ted Koppel. 

Fortunately, there are many ways that you and your healthcare provider can work together to manage COPD. Here are some of your options.

The mainstay of COPD treatment is medication. Some are taken daily to prevent symptoms long-term, while others are used only to treat flares. Your healthcare provider may suggest:

Bronchodilators. These medications, usually in the form of an inhaler, help to keep airways open and possibly decrease lung secretions. There are several types that can be used alone or in combination, including:

  • Long-acting (maintenance) medication. Some of these inhalers combine long-acting beta-agonists, which relax the airways, and steroids, which reduce inflammation. Often used daily, they can make breathing easier and also fend off COPD attacks.
  • Short-acting medication, which helps relieve sudden COPD symptoms. This includes rescue inhalers, which are used as needed to quickly relieve shortness of breath. 

Important: Ask your healthcare provider to demonstrate how to use your inhaler to make sure the right dose of medication reaches your lungs. If you do not use your inhaler correctly, your symptoms may come back or get worse.

Glucocorticoids. These anti-inflammatory medications can be combined with bronchodilators for better symptom control, particularly if you have frequent COPD attacks.

A variety of other medications and non-drug treatments are also used to manage COPD, including:

Lifestyle changes. Your top priority? Stop smoking now! Your healthcare provider can recommend treatments to help you kick the habit. It’s also important to avoid lung irritants (e.g., secondhand smoke, pollution, airborne chemicals). 

Theophylline. This oral form of medication is occasionally used in people with severe COPD. It has more side effects than inhaled bronchodilators and requires careful monitoring with blood tests.

Pulmonary rehabilitation. This is a program that often includes education, exercise training, social support and instruction on breathing techniques to improve exercise capacity (see page 10 for an example).

Vaccinations. Respiratory infections can worsen your symptoms, so
get the flu and pneumonia vaccines, as well as any others recommended by your healthcare provider. 

Oxygen treatment. If your COPD is severe, your healthcare provider might suggest using oxygen to help with shortness of breath. 

Surgery. People with very severe breathing problems may require lung surgery to help lessen some of their symptoms.

Medical treatment is just one part of your plan. The other? Making daily decisions with your lung health in mind. For example, eating healthy foods (about a third of people with severe COPD have trouble eating and are undernourished). Maintaining your weight. Finding ways to limit stress. And reaching out to your loved ones when needed—there’s no reason to go it alone! 

January 2015