Bronchodilators are medications that relax the bronchial muscles. Relaxing these muscles makes the airways larger, allowing air to pass through the lungs easier. This helps people with COPD breathe better. Many different kinds of bronchodilators are available. They can be grouped according to how long they work (called short- and long-acting drugs) or the way in which they widen or dilate the airways (beta-agonists, anticholinergics or theophyllines). While all bronchodilators widen the airways, they work in different ways to do so. It is therefore possible to combine bronchodilators in order to achieve maximal benefit. Many people with COPD experience constant breathing difficulty. Bronchodilators therefore need to be taken regularly to keep breathing under control, this is called maintenance medication. Conversely, reliever medications are used for temporary breathless.
What kinds of bronchodilators are there?
The three main groups of bronchodilators are beta-agonists, anticholinergics and theophyllines. Bronchodilators are important in treating the symptoms of COPD, such as breathlessness, cough and sputum production. People with COPD are generally prescribed at least one bronchodilator, however, sometimes two or three medications are needed to control symptoms. Bronchodilators can also be used to "relieve" worsening symptoms. Reliever drugs are usually short acting and, therefore, are not the best way to control day-to-day symptoms. In order to give you regular control or to maintain your breathing, these short-acting bronchodilators would have to be taken frequently, day and night, 24 hours a day. This is not very practical for most people.
It is unusual to find two people with COPD on the same program of medication. Some need bronchodilators from only one group, while some need bronchodilators from all three groups. For example, a person may need a beta-agonist as well as an anticholinergic and a theophylline drug. The number of different bronchodilators people with COPD need depends on how well their symptoms are controlled.