In the United States and around the globe, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) remains. In addition to new diagnostic guidelines, the , or GOLD report, sets forth recommendations for management and treatment.
According to the GOLD report, initial management of COPD should aim at reducing exposure to risk factors such as smoking or other chemical exposures. In addition to medications, stable COPD patients should be evaluated for inhaler technique, adherence to prescribed therapies, smoking status, and continued exposure to other risk factors. Also, physical activity should be advised and pulmonary rehabilitation should be considered. Spirometry should be performed annually.
These guidelines offer very practical advice but often are difficult to implement in clinical practice. Everyone knows smoking is harmful and quitting provides huge health benefits, not only regarding COPD. However, nicotine is very addictive, and most smokers cannot just quit. Many need smoking cessation aids and counseling. Additionally, some smokers just don’t want to quit. Regarding workplace exposures, it often is not easy for someone just to change their job. Many are afraid to speak because they are afraid of losing their jobs. Everyone, not just patients with COPD, can benefit from increased physical activity, and all doctors know how difficult it is to motivate patients to do this.
The decision to initiate medications should be based on an individual patient’s symptoms and risk of exacerbations. In general, long-acting bronchodilators, including long-acting beta agonists (LABA) and long-acting muscarinic antagonists (LAMA), are preferred except when immediate relief of dyspnea is needed, and then short-acting bronchodilators should be used. Either a single long-acting or dual long-acting bronchodilator can be initiated. If a patient continues to have dyspnea on a single long-acting bronchodilator, treatment should be switched to a dual therapy.
In general, inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) are not recommended for stable COPD patients. If a patient has exacerbations despite appropriate treatment with LABAs, an ICS may be added to the LABA, the GOLD guidelines say. Oral corticosteroids are not recommended for long-term use. PDE4 inhibitors should be considered in patents with severe to very severe airflow obstruction, chronic bronchitis, and exacerbations. Macrolide antibiotics, especially azithromycin, can be considered in acute exacerbations. There is no evidence to support the use of antitussives and mucolytics are advised in only certain patients. Inhaled bronchodilators are advised over oral ones and theophylline is recommended when long-acting bronchodilators are unavailable or unaffordable.
In clinical practice, I see many patients treated based on symptomatology with spirometry testing not being done. This may help control many symptoms, but unless my patient has an accurate diagnosis, I won’t know if my patient is receiving the correct treatment.
It is important to keep in mind that COPD is a progressive disease and without appropriate treatment and monitoring, it will just get worse, and this is most likely to be irreversible.