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How Is COPD Treated?

COPD has no cure yet. However, treatments and lifestyle changes can help you feel better, stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease.

Quitting smoking is the most important step you can take to treat COPD. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit.

Many hospitals have programs that help people quit smoking, or hospital staff can refer you to a program. Ask your family members and friends to support you in your efforts to quit. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke. (Secondhand smoke is smoke in the air from other people smoking.)

The Diseases and Conditions Index (DCI) Smoking and Your Heart article and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's "Your Guide to a Healthy Heart" booklet have more information about how to quit smoking.

Other treatments for COPD may include medicines, vaccines, pulmonary rehabilitation (rehab), oxygen therapy, and surgery. Your doctor also may recommend tips for managing COPD complications.

The goals of COPD treatment include:

  • Relieving your symptoms
  • Slowing the progress of the disease
  • Improving your exercise tolerance (your ability to stay active)
  • Preventing and treating complications
  • Improving your overall health

Specialists Involved

To assist with your treatment, your family doctor may advise you to see a pulmonologist. This is a doctor who specializes in treating people who have lung disorders.

Medicines

Bronchodilators

Bronchodilators relax the muscles around your airways. This helps open your airways and makes breathing easier.

Depending on how severe your disease is, your doctor may prescribe short-acting or long-acting bronchodilators. Short-acting bronchodilators last about 4 to 6 hours and should be used only when needed. Long-acting bronchodilators last about 12 hours or more and are used every day.

Most bronchodilators are taken using a device called an inhaler. This device allows the medicine to go right to your lungs. Not all inhalers are used the same way. Ask your health care team to show you the correct way to use your inhaler.

If your COPD is mild, your doctor may only prescribe a short-acting inhaled bronchodilator. In this case, you may only use the medicine when symptoms occur.

If your COPD is moderate or severe, your doctor may prescribe regular treatment with short- and long-acting bronchodilators.

Inhaled Glucocorticosteroids (Steroids)

Inhaled steroids are used to treat people whose COPD symptoms flare up or worsen. These medicines may reduce airway inflammation.

Your doctor may ask you to try inhaled steroids for a trial period of 6 weeks to 3 months to see whether the medicine helps relieve your breathing problems.

Vaccines

Flu Shots

The flu (influenza) can cause serious problems for people who have COPD. Flu shots can reduce your risk of the flu. Talk with your doctor about getting a yearly flu shot.

Pneumococcal Vaccine

This vaccine lowers your risk of pneumococcal pneumonia (nu-MO-ne-ah) and its complications. People who have COPD are at higher risk of pneumonia than people who don't have COPD. Talk with your doctor about whether you should get this vaccine.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation, or rehab, is a medically supervised program that helps improve the health and well-being of people who have lung problems.

Rehab may include an exercise program, disease management training, and nutritional and psychological counseling. The program's goal is to help you stay more active and carry out your daily activities.

Your rehab team may include doctors, nurses, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, exercise specialists, and dietitians. These health professionals work together and with you to create a program that meets your needs.

Oxygen Therapy

If you have severe COPD and low levels of oxygen in your blood, oxygen therapy can help you breathe better. For this treatment, you're given oxygen through nasal prongs or a mask.

You may need extra oxygen all the time or just sometimes. For some people who have severe COPD, using extra oxygen for most of the day can help them:

  • Do tasks or activities, while having fewer symptoms
  • Protect their hearts and other organs from damage
  • Sleep more during the night and improve alertness during the day
  • Live longer

For more information, go to the DCI Oxygen Therapy article.

Surgery

In rare cases, surgery may benefit some people who have COPD. Surgery usually is a last resort for people who have severe symptoms that have not improved from taking medicines.

Surgeries for people who have COPD that's mainly related to emphysema include bullectomy (bul-EK-to-me) and lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS). A lung transplant may be done for people who have very severe COPD.

Bullectomy

When the walls of the air sacs are destroyed, larger air spaces called bullae form. These air spaces can become so large that they interfere with breathing. In a bullectomy, doctors remove one or more very large bullae from the lungs.

Lung Volume Reduction Surgery

In LVRS, surgeons remove damaged tissue from the lungs. This helps the lungs work better. In carefully selected patients, LVRS can improve breathing and quality of life.

Lung Transplant

A lung transplant may benefit some people who have very severe COPD. During a lung transplant, your damaged lung is removed and replaced with a healthy lung from a deceased donor.

A lung transplant can improve your lung function and quality of life. However, lung transplants have a high risk of complications. These include infections and death due to the body rejecting the transplanted lung.

If you have very severe COPD, talk with your doctor about whether a lung transplant is an option. Discuss with your doctor the benefits and risks of this type of surgery.

For more information, go to the DCI Lung Transplant article.

Managing Complications

COPD symptoms usually slowly worsen over time. However, they can worsen suddenly. For instance, a cold, the flu, or a lung infection may cause your symptoms to quickly worsen. You may have a much harder time catching your breath. You also may have chest tightness, more coughing, changes in the color or amount of your sputum (spit), and a fever.

Call your doctor right away if this happens. He or she may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection and other medicines, such as bronchodilators and inhaled steroids, to help you breathe.

Some severe symptoms may require treatment in a hospital. For more information, go to "What Are the Signs and Symptoms of COPD?"


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