COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)

Medications for COPD

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 that you may have experienced.

Bronchodilators are a type of medicine you inhale that open up your airways to help you breathe more easily.

Short-acting bronchodilator

Your inhaler will only help if you use it correctly. Ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist to show you how.

If you only get short of breath when you’re active, your doctor will give you a short-acting bronchodilator. This will help your breathing quickly and the effects last for four to six hours.

Long-acting bronchodilator

If you’re breathless daily, you’ll be prescribed a long-acting bronchodilator. This may take longer to have an effect, but the effects last longer – 12 to 24 hours. There are two main types of long-acting drugs: anti-muscarinic or beta agonist. You may be started on one of each or on both. Sometimes they come in separate inhalers and sometimes in combinations. You may get on better with one or another version, but in general they are all thought to be equally effective. 

Steroid inhaler

If you have regular flare-ups or exacerbations of your COPD, you may also be given a steroid inhaler. This can help reduce inflammation and swelling in your airways. This sort of drug is usually given with a long-acting bronchodilator in a combination inhaler – two medicines given in one inhaler.

Steroid inhalers are also useful in people whose condition is an overlap of asthma and COPD.


If you cough up a lot of sputum, you may be given a drug called a mucolytic as a tablet or syrup. This makes your sputum thinner and easier to cough up.

Side effects

It’s not common to get side effects from inhaled drugs, as the dose is usually very small. Steroids can sometimes make your voice hoarse or give you a fungal infection, called thrush, in your mouth. This is easy to treat. You can reduce the risk by using your inhaler correctly and rinsing your mouth out after every time you use it.

Taking your medicine

You can take your inhaled medicine in different ways. These include different sorts of inhalers:

  • dry powder inhalers – suck in as hard as you can
  • metered dose inhalers – they produce a puff of medication like an aerosol – use a slow deep breath in
  • spacers – these attach to some inhalers to help you breathe in the drug more effectively
  • nebulisers – these devices turn the medicine into a mist that you can breathe in. They’re used in an emergency when you need large doses of inhaled medicine, such as during a flare-up. Most people don’t need such a big dose and get as much benefit from normal inhalers as long as they use them correctly with a spacer device.

Next: Managing your COPD >

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Last medically reviewed: September 2016. Due for review: September 2019

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.