What are the treatments for COPD?
The core care for COPD is:
- having treatment and support to stop smoking
- having a flu jab every year and a one-off pneumonia vaccination
- an exercise programme called pulmonary rehabilitation if your breathlessness stops you doing things
- having your own self-management plan
- identifying and managing your other health problems, because most people with COPD also have other long-term conditions
- taking medicine or combinations of medications to improve breathlessness and help prevent flare-ups
Are you receiving the care you're entitled to? Use our COPD patient passport to find out.
Further care options for COPD:
Some people may also benefit from further care. Talk to your health care professional about your particular circumstances.
- Oxygen therapy
- non-invasive ventilation
- lung volume reduction procedures for emphysema
- a lung transplant
You should have regular check-ups with your health care professional – at least once a year.
If you smoke, the most effective treatment for COPD is to stop. Your health care professional and pharmacist can help you find ways that make it easier for you. You’re around three times as likely to quit with help from support services and medication.
Make sure you get your flu jab every year to protect you against the flu viruses likely to be going round over the winter. Vaccination reduces your risk of developing serious complications, such as pneumonia and heart problems, and of being admitted to hospital, if you are exposed to flu. The NHS offers it for free to people living with long-term conditions like COPD.
Your doctor should also offer you a vaccination against pneumococcal infection – a bacterial infection that can cause pneumonia and other illnesses. You only need to have this once.
You can also avoid infections by staying away from people – including children – who have colds, flu, sinus infections or a sore throat. If you do get an infection, make sure you treat it quickly.
Pulmonary rehabilitation or PR is a programme of exercise and education designed for people living with COPD. It’s one of the best treatments available for COPD.
A course lasts about 6 - 8 weeks and you’ll be part of a group.
At each session, you’ll spend about half the time on physical exercise. This will be carefully designed to provide the right level of activity for you. You’ll also get information and tips about things like:
- breathing techniques and positions to help you when you’re out of breath
- how to manage stress
- healthy eating
- how to use your inhalers and other medicines
- what to do when you’re unwell
PR is about helping you manage your COPD better. It’s a treatment not a cure, but you’ll feel better- more confident and in control.
After you’ve completed your course, it’s important to carry on exercising regularly, stay active and use the techniques you’ve learned. Read our information on keeping active or call our helpline to find out more.
Remember – it’s not harmful to make yourself breathless.
Most people find PR improves their ability to exercise and their quality of life. The impact of PR is often bigger than the impact of taking inhaled medications. By combining the two approaches, you’re likely to get the most benefit.
It’s important you have a plan to help you manage your COPD that’s agreed with your doctor or nurse and reviewed every year. You should also have regular check-ups with your health care professional – at least once a year.
Most people with COPD have 1 or more other long-term health conditions. Examples include heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, muscle and joint problems as well as anxiety and depression. This can happen because:
- People with COPD have often smoked, and smoking causes other health problems, especially heart disease.
- Long-term medical problems are more common as people get older and COPD tends to occur in older people.
- COPD makes people breathless and less physically active which increases the risk of other health problems.
It is important to make sure all your health conditions are as well managed and all your symptoms are properly treated. For example, heart disease is common in people with COPD and can be another cause of breathlessness. Having anxiety can make it harder to cope with feeling short of breath and worsen your breathlessness.
Your doctor will decide with you which medications to use depending on how severe your COPD is, how it affects your everyday life, and any side-effects you may have had.
Your health care team may send you to a specialist to see if oxygen therapy can help you. Oxygen is only useful as a treatment for people with a low oxygen level. It doesn’t help breathlessness in people whose oxygen level is not low. In most people with COPD, breathlessness is caused by difficulty moving air in and out as you breathe, rather than by a low oxygen level.
If you’re admitted to hospital with a severe flare-up of your condition, you may be offered non-invasive ventilation. This involves wearing a snug-fitting mask over your nose, or over your nose and mouth, connected to a machine that pushes air into your lungs. Non-invasive ventilation supports your breathing to give your muscles a rest and gently helps with each breathe you take. This increases your oxygen level and helps you breathe out more carbon dioxide.
If you regularly wake up with a headache, tell your doctor. It can be a sign your breathing is shallow at night and you might benefit from non-invasive ventilation at home. Non-invasive ventilation, in the form of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), is also used as a treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). You can read more about CPAP in our OSA information.
Lung volume reduction procedures
A few percent of people with emphysema and COPD may benefit from a lung volume reduction procedure to reduce the amount of air trapped in their lungs. This can involve an operation to remove the worst affected area of lung or putting valves into the airways with a fibre-optic camera to block the worst area off. This allows the remaining, healthier parts of the lungs to work better so that you can breathe more easily.
If you’ve had pulmonary rehabilitation and are still limited by breathlessness, ask your doctor if you might be suitable for a lung volume reduction procedure. Your GP can refer you for the necessary investigations or to a specialist centre.
If you have very severe COPD and have not got better with treatment, you might be a candidate for a lung transplant. Lung transplant is a high-risk major operation and is only suitable for a small number of people. Currently, there are not enough donor lungs available to meet demand.
Whether you can be considered for a lung transplant depends on factors that influence the chance of a successful outcome. These include your general health and fitness, other medical conditions that mean that you would not be able to cope with the procedure and whether you are over- or under-weight. You will also need to have not smoked for at least 6 months. There is no strict age cut-off, but it’s unusual for people with COPD to have a transplant much over 60 years old. Ask your doctor if you think you might be suitable.