Understanding Your COPD Treatment Plan

Understanding Your COPD Treatment Plan

Your doctor will work with you to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that includes a mix of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a term that’s used to describe a few types of progressive lung diseases—most notably emphysema and chronic bronchitis—that get worse over time. Most people with the condition experience symptoms like shortness of breath, frequent cough and wheezing.

Every patient’s experience with COPD is different, and some lifestyle habits (like smoking) can lead to a more rapid progression of the condition, while others (like exercise) can help slow down the decline of lung function. While there’s no cure for COPD, there are steps you can take to treat and manage the condition—and improve your quality of life.

COPD medications
Once you’re diagnosed with COPD, your doctor will work with you to decide which treatment options may be best to help manage your specific symptoms. These may include the following:

Bronchodilators are a type of medication that helps relax the muscles around your airways to make breathing easier. Most are administered with either an inhaler or a nebulizer so that you breathe the medication directly into your lungs. Depending on the severity of your COPD, your doctor may prescribe:

  • Short-acting bronchodilators, which are taken when you need quick relief from COPD symptoms. (The effects of these medications wear off within a few hours.)
  • Long-acting bronchodilators, which work more slowly, but provide relief lasting for 12 to 24 hours.

There are two specific types of bronchodilators, and either one can be a short-acting medication or a long-acting medication. These include:

  • Beta agonists, which relax tightened muscles around your airways to make breathing easier.
  • Anticholinergics, which prevent airway muscles from contracting while helping to clear mucus from the lungs.

Combination medications contain a mix of two or three COPD medications: a beta agonist, an anticholinergic and a corticosteroid medication. Combination medications are typically prescribed to treat more severe cases of COPD that require the use of an inhaled steroid, because the use of inhaled steroids as a standalone treatment is not recommended.

Be sure to work closely with your doctor on how to administer your medication, as various inhalers and nebulizers may work differently. If you have any questions about how to properly take your medication, it’s important to speak up because improper use of treatment devices may result in not getting the right amount of medication.

Additional COPD treatments
Medication alone often isn’t enough to properly manage COPD. Your doctor may recommend one or more of these additional therapies.

Pulmonary rehabilitation is an outpatient group program you can join to learn more about how to manage your COPD. Led by various medical professionals, pulmonary rehab can help you gain the skills you need to increase fitness levels, improve lung function and perform daily activities. It also gives you the opportunity to meet and connect with others who are managing COPD.

Supplemental oxygen may be recommended for patients with severe cases of COPD who have chronically low levels of oxygen in the blood as a result of the disease. In certain patients, it can help improve quality of life.

Surgery is often used as a last resort, but it’s an option for some people who have severe COPD that isn’t improving with the use of medications and other therapies. Surgical interventions include:

  • Bullectomy, which removes bullae, large air spaces that result when the lungs’ air sacs are destroyed (these can interfere with your breathing if left untreated)
  • Lung volume reduction, which removes damaged tissue from the lungs to improve lung function and quality of life
  • Lung transplant, where the damaged lung is replaced with a healthy donor lung

Lifestyle changes for COPD management
On top of following your COPD treatment plan, your doctor will also likely recommend making certain lifestyle changes to help control COPD.

Quit smoking. If you smoke, quitting—and staying quit—is the most important step you can take to slow the progress of the disease and improve symptoms. If you have trouble quitting, talk to your doctor about smoking cessation aids.

Stay active. COPD can make it difficult to breathe, which can make exercise a challenge. However, staying active when you have COPD can actually strengthen the muscles that help you breathe, which in turn can help improve symptoms. Your doctor can recommend COPD-friendly activities to try, such as walking, biking or swimming.

Pay attention to your diet. This is especially important if you have trouble eating due to shortness of breath or fatigue related to COPD. If dietary supplementation would make sense in your case, your doctor can provide strategies for getting the calories and the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy, such as eating smaller meals more frequently, resting before you eat and taking nutritional supplements. 

Prevent illness. Taking steps to avoid lung infections is an important part of COPD management. Your doctor will likely recommend getting an annual flu shot as well as getting vaccinated for pneumonia. It also helps to wash your hands regularly and avoid interactions with others who are sick. Your doctor may even preemptively prescribe antibiotics to keep on hand in case you come down with an infection or antiviral medications if you get the flu.

Pay attention to air quality. Take steps to reduce allergens in your home—like dust mites and pet dander, which can trigger COPD symptoms—and avoid secondhand smoke and other irritating fumes, whether at home or elsewhere. You can also check the air quality index for outdoor air pollution before leaving your home and take steps to adjust your plans to avoid spending prolonged periods outside on poor air quality days.

Consider complementary therapy. Some people find that adding massage, acupuncture or meditation to their COPD management may help ease pain and side effects, reduce the anxiety that often comes with the disease and improve overall quality of life. Before you try any type of complementary therapy, consult with your doctor first. 

Putting it all together
Everyone’s COPD is different, so be sure to work with your doctor to discuss what to include in your well-rounded COPD management plan.

Once you have your plan in place, following it is essential. By incorporating a mix of medications, therapies and lifestyle changes, you can help:

  • Manage COPD symptoms
  • Slow the progression of COPD
  • Boost overall health and lung health by staying active
  • Prevent or treat COPD-related health complications

If your symptoms become increasingly worse despite following your COPD management plan, check with your doctor, as this may be a sign that you’d benefit from a change in treatment. And always be on the lookout for a COPD exacerbation—when your symptoms suddenly become worse, typically as a result of an infection—which will require prompt treatment and possibly hospitalization.

Medically reviewed in November 2018.

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