How Is COPD Treated?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung condition characterized by difficulty breathing. COPD can’t be cured, but treatment can help manage symptoms, prevent exacerbations (flare-ups), and improve your quality of life.

If you have COPD, you may see a pulmonologist—a doctor who specializes in treating respiratory conditions. Common COPD treatments include prescription medications, lifestyle changes, and rehabilitation therapies to treat the disease. Surgery is sometimes recommended for people with very severe symptoms.

Senior woman receiving oxygen therapy
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Lifestyle Interventions

When you have COPD, making healthy lifestyle choices can go a long way in helping manage symptoms and reducing the impact the disease has on your life. Living with COPD has its challenges, but making a few simple lifestyle changes can reduce exacerbations and improve your overall quality of life. 

Not Smoking

Refraining from smoking is one of the best things you can do when you have COPD. In addition to being the leading cause of COPD, smoking can worsen your symptoms and make it more challenging to treat if you continue. Instead, you can improve your breathing, stay more active, and slow disease progression by not smoking, or quitting smoking if you currently do.

Nicotine replacement therapy, inhalers, skin patches, and lozenges can reduce discomfort caused by quitting. If you tell your doctor you are ready to quit, they may recommend prescription drugs to minimize withdrawals and cravings. In addition, many smoking cessation programs are available online and in person, where you can find support and guidance.

Regular Exercise

Regular physical activity is essential for your overall health and well-being. For people with COPD, exercise is considered the most effective way to improve shortness of breath. Walking, biking, and swimming are great ways to exercise. In addition, resistance training using weights or resistance bands can help strengthen your muscles.

Avoid Irritants 

Exposure to lung irritants can worsen your symptoms, so do your best to avoid exposure to lung irritants, including dust, outdoor pollution, chemical fumes, smoke from heating fuels, and secondhand smoke. 

You can check the air quality where you live on the U.S. Air Quality Index website. This site is updated daily and can tell you what the air quality is like on any given day. If you live in a polluted area, keep your windows closed and wear a mask outdoors to protect your lungs from pollution, pollen, or dust.

Eat a Healthy, Balanced Diet 

The foods you eat provide your body the nutrients it needs to function well. Eating a healthy diet can help make breathing easier. Some people with COPD find that a diet low in carbohydrates and healthy fats help them breathe easier.

Sometimes medications, breathing troubles, and fatigue can make it difficult to meet your nutritional needs with COPD. Eating too few calories can worsen your symptoms, so talk to your healthcare provider or a nutritionist about medical nutritional supplements if you struggle to get the nutrients you need through regular foods.


People with COPD have a high risk of developing severe complications from certain vaccine-preventable diseases, such as pneumonia and influenza (the flu). Staying up-to-date on your vaccinations is a simple way to protect your health and prevent exacerbations and hospitalizations when living with COPD. Talk to your doctor about getting your yearly influenza vaccine and pneumococcal vaccines, which are recommended once for adults younger than 65, and twice if you’re 65 or older.

Prescription Medications

Several types of medications may be prescribed to manage symptoms. Some are used to help relax muscles of the airways, reduce swelling and inflammation in the airways, and improve lung function. Others are fast-acting drugs that can help you breathe better.


Bronchodilators help relax the muscles around your airways. These medicines help open the airways to make it easier to breathe. Bronchodilators are administered through an inhaler or nebulizer (a machine that converts the drug into a fine mist you breathe in). 

Bronchodilators can be short-acting or long-acting. Short-acting bronchodilators work quickly to get instant relief when needed, but they only work for about 4-6 hours. Long-acting bronchodilators are intended for daily use and last 12 hours or longer. Both short and long-acting bronchodilators use these types of drugs:

  • Beta-2 agonists: Help relax tightened muscles surrounding the airways to open them and make breathing easier. 
  • Anticholinergics: Relax the airways and prevent them from narrowing. Anticholinergics also help clear mucus from the lungs, helping you expel mucus efficiently when you cough. 


Corticosteroids (steroids) decrease inflammation, helping reduce swelling and mucus production to make breathing easier. Your doctor may prescribe oral or inhaled steroids to treat COPD.

  • Oral: Oral steroids may be prescribed during exacerbations (flare-ups) when your symptoms are more severe and there is more mucus production. However, these medicines can have serious side effects, so they are typically prescribed for short-term use. 
  • Inhaled: Inhaled steroid medicines are delivered through an inhaler device. They may be prescribed if your symptoms are stable or slowly worsening to reduce inflammation and mucus production.

Combination Medicines 

Combination bronchodilators and corticosteroids may be combined into one inhaler or nebulizer medication. Your doctor may prescribe these medicines during an exacerbation or if you have more severe COPD.

Phosphodiesterase-4 Inhibitors 

Phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE-4) inhibitors are a relatively new medicine used to treat severe or very severe COPD. These medicines are taken as a pill and have anti-inflammatory and bronchodilator effects, helping relax muscles around the airways and decrease airway inflammation. Research shows that PDE-4 inhibitors can significantly improve lung function and reduce exacerbations, but only slightly improve quality of life.


If you get sick with a bacterial respiratory infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to help clear the infection. It’s essential to take the entire course of the antibiotic as prescribed, even if you start to feel better before you’ve taken every dose of the medicine.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation (rehab) is an education and exercise program designed to help people with COPD improve their lung function, reduce symptom severity, and enjoy a better quality of life. Pulmonary rehab may be offered at a hospital or clinic, though some services may be offered in your home. A rehab team composed of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other medical professionals will develop a personalized rehab plan tailored to your needs.

Pulmonary rehabilitation programs have three key components:

  • Exercise: Both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities are tailored to your needs and abilities. Workouts are typically taught in a supervised setting to ensure your safety. 
  • Education: Your rehab team will provide education and information to help you understand your disease and how to manage it. For example, they may provide medication management information, identify and avoid triggers that worsen your symptoms, and communicate effectively with your healthcare providers. 
  • Support: Most programs are offered in group settings so you can meet others with COPD to give and receive peer support. Counseling and other supportive services may be offered to help people with COPD cope with the emotional and social impacts of the disease. 

Oxygen Therapy

Oxygen therapy delivers supplemental oxygen to make it easier for you to breathe and alleviate symptoms. Some people need oxygen therapy on a short-term basis—during the night or while exercising, for example. Others may need supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day.

You can receive oxygen therapy in various ways, including through a nasal cannula, a face mask, or a portable oxygen concentrator, which takes air from your environment and converts it to concentrated oxygen. Your healthcare provider will recommend a specific type of oxygen therapy based on your symptoms and how they impact your quality of life.


Surgery may be a treatment option if you have more severe symptoms that medication or pulmonary rehabilitation do not help manage. A few different types of surgery are used to treat COPD:

  • Bullectomy: If some air sacs in the lungs become significantly enlarged (called bullae) and press on healthier air sacs, this surgery removes the bullae to improve airflow. 
  • Lung volume reduction surgery: Involves removing damaged tissue from the upper part of the lungs to help you breathe more easily. 
  • Endobronchial valve volume reduction: Three to five tiny valves are placed in the airways to prevent air from flowing into the damaged part of the lungs. 
  • Lung transplant: One or both damaged lungs are removed and replaced with healthy lungs from a donor. 

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are practices that are not a part of standard medical care in the United States. However, some people with COPD may want to try complementary and alternative therapies with their doctor-recommended treatments to help relieve their symptoms and improve their quality of life. If you want to try CAM, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider before trying alternative therapies, including herbal remedies.

Acupuncture and mindfulness have been studied and found to be effective in managing COPD. 

  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that involves a practitioner placing thin needles into specific areas of the body to promote healing. A 2021 meta-analysis of 21 clinical studies found that acupuncture may help improve shortness of breath and quality of life in people with COPD when combined with conventional treatments.
  • Mindfulness: The practice of mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, free of judgment. This skill can be learned and used for every part of life and may help enhance your overall health and well-being. For example, some research suggests that mindfulness may help people with COPD reduce anxiety and depression, improve shortness of breath, and reduce fatigue.

Living With and Managing COPD

COPD is a chronic disease that comes with physical and emotional challenges. The good news is COPD is treatable, and many people with the condition can maintain a good quality of life for many years. Most COPD-related deaths occur after the age of 75. Thanks to research advancements, new and better treatments are helping people live even longer and still participate in the activities they enjoy. 

Untreated COPD can progress more quickly, leave you vulnerable to more respiratory infections, exacerbations, and hospitalizations and shorten your lifespan. That’s why following your treatment regimen and adopting healthy lifestyle habits is essential.

A Quick Review

COPD is a chronic, lifelong lung disease that cannot be cured but can be treated. Healthy lifestyle habits, like refraining from smoking and regularly exercising, can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life. 

Prescription medications used to treat COPD include bronchodilators, corticosteroids, pulmonary rehabilitation, oxygen therapy, and surgery. Following your treatment program and living a healthy lifestyle can help you manage symptoms to feel better and enjoy life. 

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