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New Treatments for COPD

6 signs of hope

By , Caring.com senior editor
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Happy old man having a casual talk with a doctor

Living with COPD is tough, because the condition, which causes shortness of breath and decreases the capacity of the lungs to absorb oxygen, is so debilitating. People with COPD struggle simply to breathe, which often severely curtails their ability to exercise or even to get around.

Meanwhile the number of people in the U.S. suffering with COPD continues to rise at a rapid rate. More than 12 million Americans have currently been diagnosed with COPD, and experts from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute estimate that an additional 12 million people have the disease but don't know it yet, doubling the national total. Clearly, new treatments -- and a potential cure -- are much needed. Here, the latest treatment options for COPD and those soon to become available.

The treatment: Inhalers

What's new: Triple therapy

Asthma-style inhalers are standard treatment for COPD, but researchers are studying new combinations that make them much more effective. So many different studies have come out in the past couple of years that there's no agreed-upon strategy.

However, many experts now believe that patients do best on "triple therapy," taking three different medications: a long-acting beta-agonist, an inhaled corticosteroid, and the anticholinergic Spiriva (generic name tiotropium bromide). A study conducted at Hannover Medical School in Germany found that when patients took all three medications, their severe episodes of breathing difficulty, known as "exacerbations," dropped by 62 percent. They also had fewer emergency room visits and hospitalizations.

Why it's encouraging: Every patient is different, and treatment depends on how many exacerbations a person with COPD is experiencing, says Byron Thomashow, chairman of the board of the COPD Foundation. But since all three medications treat different aspects of the disease, many people do best taking all of them. Anticholinergics like Spiriva work by relaxing the smooth muscles, preventing airway spasms. Long-acting beta-agonists also relax the muscles and increase airway flow. Inhaled corticosteroids (brand names Qvar, Asmanex, Flovent, and Pulmicort) reduce inflammation in the airways.

What to watch for: Inhalants containing corticosteroids have to be used with care because they can cause a yeast infection called thrush in the back of the throat. Inhaled corticosteroids have been shown to increase the risk of pneumonia, so patients taking them need to be on the alert if they get the flu.