While there is no cure for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), several available treatment options can help manage symptoms, including short and long-acting bronchodilators and steroids.

COPD refers to long-term progressive lung diseases that cause breathing issues, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Currently, there is no cure for COPD. However, medications for the condition can help slow the progression of the disease, reduce flare-ups, and decrease symptoms.

The article below covers the different types of COPD medications and their side effects.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COPD is the third leading cause of death worldwide. Although medications for COPD will not cure the condition, they can help reduce symptoms.

COPD can lead to narrowed bronchial tubes, increased mucus production, and swelling of the airways. Different types of medications work on various symptoms. Typically, people administer medications for COPD through a nebulizer or an inhaler. The primary types of medications for COPD include the below.

Short-acting bronchodilators

People with COPD develop constriction or narrowing of the airways. This makes it difficult to get air in and out of the lungs. It can lead to wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

Short-acting bronchodilators help dilate or open up the airways, making breathing easier.

Examples of short-acting bronchodilators to treat COPD include:

Short-acting bronchodilators contain beta2-agonists and anticholinergics.

Beta-2-agonists target beta-2 receptors in the lungs. When the beta-2 receptors become activated, it causes the smooth muscles around the airways to relax. As the muscle relax and open up, breathing gets easier.

Anticholinergic medications for COPD prevent the tightening of the muscles around the airways.

Short-acting bronchodilators work fast but only last about 4–6 hours. Because they work quickly, these medications are suitable for treating sudden symptoms of COPD.

Long-acting bronchodilators

Long-acting bronchodilators also target specific receptors in the lungs. These types of medication help prevent the narrowing of the airways for longer periods than short-acting bronchodilators.

Although long-acting bronchodilators may help prevent symptoms for several hours, they work slower than short-acting medications. Because they take longer to work, doctors do not prescribe long-acting bronchodilators for quick symptom relief.

Preventing symptoms for several hours may help improve quality of life. One 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis found that taking long-acting bronchodilators improved exercise capacity in people with COPD.

Examples of long-acting bronchodilators for COPD include:


Inflammation in the lungs also occurs in people with COPD.

In cases of a flare-up of COPD symptoms, doctors may prescribe steroids, which have an anti-inflammatory effect. Decreasing swelling in the airway improves breathing in people with COPD.

Individuals may take steroids for COPD in pill form, via injection, or an inhaler. In some cases, doctors only recommend steroids for COPD for a brief period to control a flare-up of symptoms.

One 2018 paper states that people with COPD may benefit from inhaled steroids, including those with frequent flare-ups and a history of overlapping asthma and COPD.

Examples of inhaled steroids for COPD include:

Combination medications

Combination medications for COPD may also help control symptoms for long periods. These combination medications contain two or three classes of medication, such as a long-acting bronchodilator and a steroid.

Some combination medications include two types of bronchodilators that target different lung receptors. These may include a beta-agonist and an anticholinergic.

Combining medications can target inflammation and the narrowing of the airways, reducing and preventing symptoms.

Examples of combination medications for COPD include:

Varying side effects are possible with COPD medications, depending on the type of medication. Possible adverse side effects of both short-acting and long-acting bronchodilators include:

  • increased heart rate
  • nervousness
  • muscle cramps
  • trembling

Adverse side effects from steroids may include:

Any combination of the above side effects can occur with combination medications.

Medications for COPD are not addictive. However, taking too much of them is still possible and can lead to a higher risk of experiencing side effects.

People need to follow their doctor’s dosing guidelines when taking COPD medications.

COPD can cause various symptoms, including wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

Medications for COPD may help reduce symptoms, decrease the frequency of flare-ups, and slow the progression of the disease. Types of medications for COPD include bronchodilators, steroids, and combination medications.