Treatments and therapies for COPD

Lesley Dobson / 12 November 2015

From medicines to breathing exercises, discover the options for treating the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.



If you smoke, the best step you can take to improve your health is to give up. This will give you the best chance of stopping your condition growing worse, and it will help your airways work properly. This will mean that they can clear some of the toxins, mucus, and bacteria from your lungs.

There is lots of help available to help you stop smoking. You can find out more from the British Lung Foundation, at NHS Choices Stop Smoking Treatments, and Cancer Research UK How to quit smoking.

Read our guide to stopping smoking

You can have treatment to help slow down COPD’s progress, and reduce the symptoms, which should make you feel better.

These are some of the possible treatments, depending on your medical history.

Read more about the symptoms and causes of COPD

Inhalers for COPD

Your doctor may prescribe a short-acting bronchodilator for you to begin with. This sends medicine straight to your lungs, which helps relax the muscles in your airways.

If this doesn’t help, your GP may prescribe a long-acting bronchodilator inhaler. This delivers medicine that should last for 12 hours or more.

The next step, if these inhalers don’t help with your symptoms, is to have a steroid inhaler. This should help reduce any swelling you have in your airways. Steroids also come in tablet form – ask your doctor which is best for you.

Other medicines for COPD

If you have a lot of mucus or phlegm your doctor may prescribe a mucolytic medicine that will help make it less thick. They may also give you antibiotics, to help reduce your risk of picking up any infections.

Breathing exercises for COPD

There are gentle exercises that you can do that can help you breath more easily, but it’s important to be properly checked by a medical professional first.

“You need to come to breathing exercises from a safe perspective, this is really important,” explains Vicky Barber, Helpline Nurse Manager at the British Lung Foundation. “If you have COPD, you must be professionally assessed before you start exercising – our message is ‘get checked first’ “.

“Practice nurses often carry out these early checks. They take your blood pressure and check your pulse rate, and will check your oxygen saturation rates while you’re resting. Then you walk for six minutes, or until you’re breathless, and your nurse or doctor will check your oxygen saturation levels again.”

If your levels haven’t dropped too dramatically, you’ll be able to go ahead and do a Pulmonary Rehabilitation (PR) programme. “If your levels have dropped, you’ll need to be assessed for ambulatory oxygen,” says Vicky Barber. “You could still be able to do the pulmonary rehabilitation class, but might need a supply of oxygen with you.”

What is Pulmonary Rehabilitation?

Pulmonary Rehabilitation is an exercise programme that helps you by building up your muscle strength and by improving the fitness of your lungs. By doing this it can help reduce your level of breathlessness.

By building up your muscle strength a PR course helps you use the oxygen you inhale more efficiently. It can also improve your overall fitness, and help you cope better with feeling out of breath. After a PR course you should feel stronger, fitter, and able to do more.

“If you have COPD, you need to exercise, but you do need to be professionally assessed first,” explains Vicky Barber. “COPD is like having a piece of string a mile long. You can be at the mild to moderate stage, but you could be at the other end of the scale, where you’re not maintaining normal oxygen levels. ”

If you are interested in going on a PR programme, ask your GP, practice nurse, respiratory team or chest clinic to refer you to a local course.

PR programmes usually last about six weeks, and are for groups of people with chronic lung problems. A team of specialists, including respiratory nurse specialists, physiotherapists, and dietitians run the programme, and give help and advice tailored to each person’s needs.

These programmes provide exercise training tailored to each person’s needs and condition. The physical activity part of the programme is usually made up of walking, cycling, and exercise to build your strength.

You‘ll also have advice and guidance on your condition, and advice on your diet. The team will also make suggestions on behavioural and psychological changes that should help you manage your condition better.

Breathing control tips for COPD

These breathing exercises from the BLF can help reduce your breathlessness if you do them regularly every day.

Relaxed, slow, deep breathing

Get yourself into a comfortable position, relax your shoulders, arms and hands. Then breathe in gently through your nose and breathe out through your nose and mouth. Every time you breathe out try to relax and feel calm.

Pursed-lips breathing

When you breathe out, purse your lips, just as you would when whistling. Doing this slows your breathing down and so helps you breath more effectively. 

For further information and help call the British Lung Foundation Helpline on 03000 030 555.

World COPD Day

November 18th is world COPD Day, and this year the aim is to help anyone affected by this condition to live fuller, more active lives. The British Lung Foundation is launching a new guide – ‘First Steps to living with COPD’, a booklet designed to help people manage their condition. And around the country people will be organizing BLF Big Breakfasts, to help raise money for the charity.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.