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HealthInfo Canterbury

COPD medications

The type of medication that's best for you will depend on how severe your COPD is and any other medical conditions you have.

Inhalers

People with COPD are often given inhalers, which are devices that deliver medication to your lungs. You may need several different inhalers depending on your symptoms and how severe they are.

It's important to use your inhalers correctly for them to work. See Inhalers for information about how to use an inhaler.

Most inhalers for COPD open up your breathing tubes and reduce your breathlessness. There are many different inhalers that last for different lengths of time. Your doctor will usually give you a short-acting reliever such as salbutamol (Ventolin). You should use this if you're breathless or about to do something that will make you breathless.

Your doctor may also give you longer acting inhalers to use once or twice a day to keep your breathing tubes open.

Some people who have frequent flare-ups (exacerbations) may be given an inhaled preventer containing a low dose of a steroid such as fluticasone (Flixotide). But most people with COPD don't need this.

Antibiotics and prednisone

If you have a flare-up, you'll normally be given antibiotics and sometimes prednisone (steroid tablets).

If your mucus (sputum or phlegm) has changed colour, you're producing more than usual and you're getting more breathless, antibiotics will help. Your GP may give you a stock of antibiotics to keep at home. You should use them according to your agreed COPD Management Plan (COPD Blue Card).

Starting antibiotics early can stop a flare-up getting worse. It can also reduce the time it takes to recover.

Medications that help loosen your mucus

These medications are called mucolytics. They help make your mucus easier to cough up. An example of a mucolytic is a syrup called bromhexine hydrochloride (Bisolvon), which you drink.

Other treatments

Many people think that oxygen is a treatment for breathlessness but this is incorrect. People get breathless because of the difficulty getting air in and out of lungs that are stiff with narrow breathing tubes. Giving extra oxygen doesn't help.

But some people have low oxygen levels all the time. These people are given oxygen to protect their hearts from the long-term effects of low oxygen.

If you have very severe COPD, you may be referred to see a chest specialist. There are operations and procedures that may help a small number of people who have very severe COPD but are otherwise well. This includes lung transplants.

Treatments given in hospital

Some people in hospital with a severe flare-up of COPD are treated for a short time with breathing support using a mask. If their oxygen level is very low, they'll also be given oxygen.

On the next page: Getting help with COPD

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by community respiratory physician, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed June 2021.

Page reference: 53522

Review key: HICOP-16602