Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a medical condition referring to chronic inflammation of the lungs, which leads to obstructed air flow. Symptoms can include difficulty breathing, cough, mucus, and wheezing. This is a lifelong disease that worsens over time, but symptoms can typically be managed with the appropriate treatment.

People Affected

Nearly 15.7 million Americans are currently living with COPD, according to the Center for Disease Control. Here are some other trends: 

  • Gender: Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with COPD. 

  • Race: It is more common amongst patients who identify as American Indians, Alaska Natives, and/or multiracial non-Hispanics. 

  • Age: Patients 65 and older are more likely to be diagnosed with COPD.

Risk Factors

The primary risk factor for developing COPD is long term cigarette smoking. Other factors can include: 

  • Exposure to cigar smoke, cigarette smoke, secondhand smoke, pipe smoke, or air pollution

  • Medical conditions such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis can also lead to COPD. 

  • Unsafe working conditions containing dust, smoke, or fumes. 

  • Exposure to fumes from burning fuel in poorly ventilated rooms

  • Genetics

Signs & Symptoms

Symptoms of COPD can include: 

  • Shortness of breath

  • Difficulty breathing during exercise

  • Wheezing

  • Chest tightness

  • Chronic cough that may produce clear, white, yellow, or greenish mucus

  • Frequent respiratory infections

  • Low energy levels

  • Unintentional weight loss

  • Swelling in your ankles, feet, and legs

These symptoms typically don’t develop until later stages of the disease when significant lung damage has already happened.


Pharmacist Tip

It’s very important to always get vaccinated for influenza and pneumonia! These illnesses can trigger COPD attacks, so try to prevent yourself from getting them in the first place. 

Living with COPD can be overwhelming and can sometimes cause depression and anxiety. Speaking with a group of people who also live with COPD and share their experiences can be comforting.  If you’re not sure where to start, check out the American Lung Association for guidance on finding support groups.

Medical Experts

Primary Care Physician: Your general doctor can diagnose and treat COPD. Certain primary care doctors have also done additional training in allergies and immunology, giving them special expertise in respiratory conditions like COPD. 

Pulmonologist: Pulmonologists are doctors who specialize in respiratory symptoms and diseases, including the lungs and COPD. 

Pulmonary Rehabilitation Therapist: Pulmonary Rehabilitation Therapists are not doctors. However, they can be a great addition to your medical team by helping with COPD treatment support.


First, your doctor will ask about your history and exposure to COPD risk factors, especially smoking cigarettes. Since COPD is often misdiagnosed or diagnosed late, your doctor may order several tests such as a lung function test; chest X-ray, CT scan, arterial blood gas analysis, and other laboratory tests.

Prescription Treatment

There are two main categories of prescription treatments for asthma: rescue medications for quick relief, and control medications for long-term treatment. Rescue medications help with short-term symptoms during COPD attacks, and they include treatments such as: 

  • Short-acting beta agonists: albuterol (ProAir HFA, Ventolin HFA, etc) and levalbuterol (Xopenex, Xopenex HFA)

  • Anticholinergic agents: ipratropium (Atrovent HFA) and tiotropium (Spiriva, Spiriva Respimat)

  • Oral and intravenous corticosteroids: prednisone (Prednisone Intensol, Rayos) and methylprednisolone (Medrol, Depo-Medrol, Solu-Medrol)

Control medications are typically taken once a day to help prevent COPD attacks long-term: 

  • Inhaled corticosteroids: fluticasone propionate (Flovent HFA, Flovent Diskus, Xhance), budesonide (Pulmicort FLexhaler, Pulmicort Respules, rhinocort), ciclesonide (Alvesco), beclomethasone (Ovar REdihaler), mometasone (Asmanex HFA, Asmanex Twisthaler), fluticasone furoate (Arnuity Ellipta)

  • Leukotriene modifiers: montelukast (Singulair), zafirlukast (Accolate), zileuton (Zyflo)

  • Combination inhalers: fluticasone-salmeterol (Advair HFA, Airduo Digihaler, etc), budesonide-formoterol (Symbicort), formoterol-mometasone (Dulera), fluticasone furoate-vilanterol (Breo Ellipta)

  • Theophylline: Theophylline (Theo-24, Elixophyllin, Thecchron)

Lifestyle Remedies

Some lifestyle changes that can help manage COPD include: 

  • Breathing techniques to help you breathe better throughout the day and when you experience symptoms. 

  • Clearing your airways using controlled coughing, water, and a humidifier can help get rid of excess mucus. 

  • Regular exercise can improve lung strength and functions. Losing weight if you are obese can also improve symptoms.

  • Healthy diets

  • Avoiding smoke and air pollution. If conditions are suboptimal, consider wearing a mask to filter out irritants.

Top COPD Medications

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