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COPD treatments: Improving your quality of life

There is no cure for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, but treatment and lifestyle changes can help relieve symptoms and slow progression of the disease.

Treatments and lifestyle changes include:

Stopping smoking

COPD and smoking are a deadly combination. If you only do one thing to manage your COPD, stop smoking. Smoking not only leads to COPD, but it speeds up the progress of the disease.

Stopping smoking can:

  • Reduce symptoms of COPD
  • Slow the decline in lung function to a rate that's normal with ageing
  • Improve the quality of life for anyone, with or without COPD

No matter how severe or mild your COPD may be, stopping smoking provides benefit. Ask your doctor or specialist respiratory nurse about nicotine replacement products and NHS Stop Smoking services.

Other lifestyle changes

With COPD, you may benefit from a coordinated programme of lifestyle changes to help you stay active and improve your overall health. This is sometimes called a pulmonary rehabilitation programme. These are usually carried out at your local hospital, where a team of specialists provide nutrition advice, breathing exercises and other types of exercises for COPD. They also provide overall education about your disease and ways to manage it. And because infections like influenza or pneumonia can cause serious problems for those with COPD, treatment should include an annual flu jab and a vaccination against pneumonia (pneumococcal vaccination).

Taking medications

Medication cannot cure COPD and cannot reverse the damage caused by smoking, but medication can help in a variety of ways. It may help:

  • Relax the muscles around airways
  • Reduce airway inflammation
  • Fight bacterial infections

Your doctor may prescribe more than one type of medication. Here are the most common types used to treat COPD:

Bronchodilators. This class of drugs relaxes muscles around airways. They may make breathing easier and reduce the number of episodes when the disease becomes acutely worse. Your doctor is likely to first prescribe an inhaled bronchodilator. To take it, you breathe in using a device such as a metered-dose inhaler, dry-powder inhaler or nebuliser. Metered-dose inhalers (MDIs) use a chemical to push medication out of the inhaler. The common propellant is heptafluoropropane (HFA). The harmful CFCs that were damaging to the ozone layer have now been phased out.

You may also take these types of medications as a tablet, or in rare cases, into a vein (intravenously). You may need to combine more than one bronchodilator or use a combination product for the best results.

Examples of bronchodilators used as COPD treatment include:

  • Anticholinergic bronchodilators block acetylcholine, a chemical messenger that makes airways constrict. They may help you breathe easier and lower the number of acute episodes you have.
  • Theophylline drugs may be helpful for people who have trouble with inhaled medications as you can take them orally. However, these medications are used less often than in the past due to the side-effects.
  • Short-acting beta-agonists are a COPD treatment you may use if you have symptoms every once in a while, such as while exercising. They are used as needed for treatment of symptoms. They can also prevent a fully-fledged attack when you feel shortness of breath coming on.
  • Long-acting beta-agonists help control daily symptoms and should be used on a regular basis. They are often used to treat night time breathing problems because they last longer - up to 12 hours. You may still need to use a short-acting beta-agonist as a "rescue" therapy to quickly control a sudden attack.

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