The official blog of the Lung Institute.

Medications for COPD and How They Work

13 Jun 2017
| Under COPD, Medical, Treatments | Posted by
Medications for COPD and How They Work

When you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you have likely been prescribed several different types of medications. With so many various medications for COPD, you could feel overwhelmed or confused about your treatment options. To help you better understand your options, we’ve broken down the medications for COPD and how they work.

Why are Medications for COPD Important?

While there isn’t a cure for COPD or other chronic lung diseases, there are treatments available to help manage symptoms, prevent flare-ups, reduce inflammation and open the airways. The main goal of medications for COPD is to help you breathe easier.

You and your doctor will work together to develop the best COPD treatment plan for you. COPD affects everyone differently, so your doctor will create an individualized treatment plan. Over time and as COPD progresses, your medications for COPD may change.


Of medications for COPD, bronchodilators are often prescribed. The purpose of bronchodilators is to help relax and open your airways. There are two types of bronchodilators: short-acting and long-acting. Typically, bronchodilators are inhalers.

Short-acting bronchodilators work to relieve your symptoms quickly. Typically, short-acting bronchodilators are also called rescue inhalers. Often, doctors prescribe rescue inhalers to relieve sudden COPD symptoms. These COPD medications can provide relief within minutes and usually last about four to six hours.

Examples of Short-Acting Bronchodilators:

  • Albuterol
  • Levalbuterol
  • Ipratropium
  • Albuterol/ Ipratropium

Long-acting bronchodilators work to provide longer-lasting relief. In general, long-acting bronchodilators are taken once or twice daily as prescribed by your doctor. In contrast to short-acting bronchodilators, long-acting bronchodilators are not rescue inhalers. However, long-acting bronchodilators can last about 12 hours and are used for maintenance.

Examples of Long-Acting Bronchodilators:

  • Aclidinium
  • Arformoterol
  • Formoterol
  • Glycopyrrolate
  • Indacaterol
  • Olodaterol
  • Salmeterol
  • Tiotropium
  • Umeclidinium

Within short and long-acting bronchodilators are two types of medications: beta-agonists and anticholinergics. Beta-agonists work to relax tightened muscles in the airways. Anticholinergics help prevent the muscles around your airways from tightening and can help clear mucus from your lungs.

Combination Medications

Medications for COPD and How They Work

In addition to bronchodilators, people with COPD often take combination medications. Generally, combination medications combine two different kinds of medicines. Mainly, the combinations are either two long-acting bronchodilators or an inhaled corticosteroid and a long-acting bronchodilator.

Examples of Combinations of Two Long-Acting Bronchodilators:

  • Glycopyrrolate/ Formoterol
  • Glycopyrrolate/ Indacaterol
  • Tiotropium/ Olodaterol
  • Umeclidinium/ Volanterol

Examples of Combinations of an Inhaled Corticosteroid and a Long-Acting Bronchodilator:

  • Budesonide/ Formoterol
  • Fluticasone/ Salmeterol
  • Fluticasone/ Vilanterol

Inhaled Steroids

Sometimes, doctors prescribe inhaled corticosteroids for people with COPD. Generally, inhaled corticosteroids help prevent COPD flare-ups and can reduce inflammation in the airways. Typically, these types of medications for COPD are prescribed to people with frequent flare-ups. However, at times, short courses of oral steroids may also be needed.

Examples of Inhaled Steroids:

  • Fluticasone
  • Budesonide

Other Medications for COPD

Sometimes, doctors prescribe other COPD medications. These may include phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors, theophylline and antibiotics among others.

Phosphodiesterase-4 Inhibitors

Doctors may prescribe phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors for people with severe COPD and symptoms of chronic bronchitis. In fact, this type of medication works to decrease inflammation and relax the airways. It is a newer type of COPD medication. Currently, the only phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitor available is roflumilast.


Theophylline helps prevent and treat COPD symptoms. It belongs to the drug class called methylxanthines.


Often, people with COPD experience or are at risk for frequent respiratory infections. These infections include the flu and pneumonia. If you develop an infection, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to help you get better.

Medications for COPD and You

Medications for COPD are available by prescription only. Often, these types of medications have specific instructions on how to use them. It’s important to make sure you understand how to use all of your medications properly, so you can receive the most benefits from them. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to show you how to use your inhalers and medications.

Remember, always take your medications exactly as prescribed by your doctor. See your doctor regularly even if you’re feeling well. If you notice a change in your overall health, COPD symptoms or lung health, call your doctor immediately.

In addition to medications for COPD, there are other therapies. These therapies include supplemental oxygen, pulmonary rehabilitation, surgery and even cellular therapy. For many people with COPD, cellular therapy has helped them improve their quality of life and return to their favorite activities. In fact, cellular therapy can be used in combination with medications for COPD.

If you or a loved one has COPD, emphysema, chronic bronchitis or another chronic lung disease and would like to learn more about cellular therapy, contact us at 888-745-6697.

* Every patient is given a Patient Satisfaction Survey shortly after treatment. Responses to the 11-question survey are aggregated to determine patient satisfaction with the delivery of treatment.

^ Quality of Life Survey data measured the patient’s self-assessed quality of life and measurable quality of improvement at three months of COPD patients.

All claims made regarding the efficacy of Lung Institute's treatments as they pertain to pulmonary conditions are based solely on anecdotal support collected by Lung Institute. Individual conditions, treatment and outcomes may vary and are not necessarily indicative of future results. Testimonial participation is voluntary. Lung Institute does not pay for or script patient testimonials.

As required by Texas state law, the Lung Institute Dallas Clinic has received Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval from MaGil IRB, now Chesapeake IRB, which is fully accredited by the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Program (AAHRPP), for research protocols and procedures. The Lung Institute has implemented these IRB approved standards at all of its clinics nationwide. Approval indicates that we follow rigorous standards for ethics, quality, and protections for human research.

Each patient is different. Results may vary.