Skip to Content
Home > Wellness > Health Library > Corticosteroids for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
Steroid medicines (corticosteroids) to be inhaled come in a form for a
inhaler (MDI) or a dry
powder inhaler (DPI).
Steroid medicines decrease inflammation in
the airways (reducing swelling and
mucus production), making breathing easier.
steroid medicines may be used to treat
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) when
symptoms rapidly get worse (COPD exacerbation), especially when
there is increased mucus production.
Inhaled steroid medicines may be used to treat stable symptoms
of COPD or symptoms that are slowly getting worse. They may
decrease the number of COPD exacerbations in people with severe COPD,
particularly those with
chronic bronchitis and frequent exacerbations.
These medicines may be useful for people who have
asthma as a component of their disease.
Research results on oral steroid medicines for COPD exacerbations show that:
Research on inhaled
Your doctor may prescribe more than one type of medicine to help you. For example, using an inhaled steroid medicine
with a long-acting beta2-agonist has been shown to result in:
Combining a steroid medicine with a beta2-agonist and an
anticholinergic improved:footnote 7
But people who used fluticasone combined with a
beta2-agonist were more likely to get
It is not possible to predict who will improve
with steroid medicine. Lung function tests (spirometry) can
be done before and after using the medicine, to learn if it has helped.
All medicines have side effects. But many people don't feel the side effects, or they are able to deal with them. Ask your pharmacist about the side effects of each medicine you take. Side effects are also listed in the information that comes with your medicine.
Here are some important things to think about:
The possibility of side effects
increases as the dose of the medicine increases. Side effects are less likely
to occur when you use the inhaled form of the medicine.
Common side effects of oral steroid medicines include:
Oral steroid medicines also may increase blood sugar level,
which may lead to a type of diabetes caused by the medicine (secondary diabetes). If you already have diabetes, it
may make the diabetes harder to control.
Common side effects
of long-term use of oral steroid medicines include:
Common side effects of inhaled steroid medicines include:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has
reported that salmeterol may make breathing more difficult. If your wheezing
gets worse after taking salmeterol, call your doctor right
Using a device called a
spacer with your metered-dose inhaler and rinsing your
mouth with water and spitting the water out after inhaling should reduce these
See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug
Reference is not available in all systems.)
The inhaled form of steroid medicines are preferred to the oral form for long-term treatment of COPD, because they
cause fewer side effects. But low-dose inhaled steroid medicines do not always work as
well as high-dose oral steroid medicines.
Long-term treatment with oral
steroid medicines is not recommended. Although
long-term treatment with inhaled steroid medicines reduces the frequency of COPD
exacerbations in some people, the long-term risks and whether the benefit is
worth the risks of long-term treatment is not known.footnote 2
Most doctors recommend that everyone using an inhaler also use a
spacer. Use of a spacer is especially important when
using an inhaler containing a steroid medicine. But you should not use a spacer with a dry
powder inhaler (DPI).
Medicine is one of the many tools your doctor has to treat a health problem. Taking medicine as your doctor suggests will improve your health and may prevent future problems. If you don't take your medicines properly, you may be putting your health (and perhaps your life) at risk.
There are many reasons why people have trouble taking their medicine. But in most cases, there is something you can do. For suggestions on how to work around common problems, see the topic Taking Medicines as Prescribed.
If you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or planning to get pregnant, do not use any medicines unless your doctor tells you to. Some medicines can harm your baby. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs, and supplements. And make sure that all your doctors know that you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or planning to get pregnant.
Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.
Complete the new medication information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.
Singh JM, et al. (2002). Corticosteroid therapy for patients with acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Archives of Internal Medicine, 162: 2527–2536.
Alsaeedi A, et al. (2002). The effects of inhaled corticosteroids in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A systematic review of randomized placebo-controlled trials. American Journal of Medicine, 113: 59–65.
McIvor RA, et al. (2011). COPD, search date April 2010. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinical evidence.com.
Highland KB, et al. (2003). Long-term effects of inhaled corticosteroids on FEV1 in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Annals of Internal Medicine, 138: 969–973.
Calverley P, et al. (2003). Combined salmeterol and fluticasone in the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A randomised controlled trial. Lancet, 361: 449–456.
Hanania NA, et al. (2003). The efficacy and safety of fluticasone propionate (250 micrograms)/salmeterol (50 micrograms) combined in the Diskus Inhaler for the treatment of COPD. Chest, 124: 834–843.
Aaron SD, et al. (2007). Tiotropium in combination with placebo, salmeterol, or fluticasone-salmeterol for treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Annals of Internal Medicine, 146(8): 545–555.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineSpecialist Medical ReviewerKen Y. Yoneda, MD - Pulmonology
Current as ofAugust 21, 2015
Current as of:
August 21, 2015
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Ken Y. Yoneda, MD - Pulmonology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2015 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
I Want To...
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.