The Right Medicine for COPD Symptoms
Although COPD can’t be reversed, the right medications can slow the progression of the disease, decrease pain and improve your quality of life. Since COPD brings many serious and uncomfortable respiratory symptoms, most cases will require a careful combination of drugs to alleviate the various discomforts. Your doctor will tailor a treatment plan to your case, but you have a responsibility to track your reactions and express any concerns that could signal a problem with the plan.
Effective Medication for Respiratory Symptoms
There are a few general categories of drugs used to treat COPD respiratory symptoms, and your specific treatment plan will probably draw from two or more:
- Bronchodilators are the first course of treatment for chronic bronchitis symptoms, relaxing your airways to allow air to pass through more easily. In COPD, both short-acting and long-acting bronchodilators are useful, depending on the severity and persistence of the breathing issue: the short-acting drug will ease occasional respiratory symptoms, while the long-acting version is more effective when your breathing trouble is constant.
- Corticosteroids aim to decrease inflammation of the airways and the alveoli that is common in emphysema cases. Taken in pill form or inhaled directly into the lungs, these powerful medications are primarily used to treat flare-ups (also known as exacerbations) and for patients who suffer from both COPD and asthma. Inhaled corticosteroids cause fewer side effects, so are the better choice for long-term treatment.
- Methylxanthine has been shown to relax the airways, help clear mucus from the lungs and even improve breathing by stimulating the control centers of the brain. However, the chances of severe side effects tend to cancel out any small improvements to lung function, so this drug is used only when other COPD treatments fail.
- Pneumonia and flu vaccines are vital for COPD sufferers, since these ailments can bring serious complications. While antibiotics are used to treat acute bacterial infections that cause flare-ups, they won’t do anything for viral infections. You should get your yearly flu shot as soon as it becomes available, and a pneumonia vaccine every 5 to 10 years.
Inhalers can be some of the most effective and fast-acting medications for COPD symptoms, but it’s important that you know how to use them correctly. Be sure to consult your doctor or another medical source on the correct way to use your metered-dose inhaler with a spacer, and how long to wait before taking another dose.
Side Effects of COPD Drugs
Side effects are common with many COPD drugs, especially when taken for a long time or when combined with other medications. Each person is unique and will experience side effects differently, but some of the most common include:
- Weight gain and fluid retention (oral corticosteroids)
- Osteoporosis (oral corticosteroids)
- Dry mouth, sore throat or thrush (inhaled corticosteroids, bronchodilators)
- Restlessness or anxiety (bronchodilators, methylxanthine)
- Stomach upset and heartburn (bronchodilators, methylxanthine)
- Rapid heart rate (methylxanthine, medications that combine a corticosteroid and a bronchodilator)
It can take time for your body to adapt to a new medication, and side effects can be stressful. Do yourself a favor and stay organized: write out a list of your medications for your reference and your pharmacist’s records, and draw up an action plan with your doctor outlining how best to handle flare-ups. A little bit of planning can save you a lot of pain and worry down the road.