Corticosteroids for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Covers medicines to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Includes inhaled corticosteroids delivered by metered-dose inhaler and sometimes dry powder inhalers. Covers why they are used, how well they work, and side effects.

Corticosteroids for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)


Pill or liquid form (oral)

Generic Name Brand Name
methylprednisolone Medrol
prednisolone Prelone

Inhaled form

Generic Name Brand Name
beclomethasone QVAR
budesonide Pulmicort Flexhaler
flunisolide Aerospan
fluticasone Flovent
mometasone Asmanex Twisthaler

Corticosteroid and beta2-agonist combination

Generic Name Brand Name
budesonide and formoterol Symbicort
fluticasone and salmeterol Advair
vilanterol and fluticasone Breo Ellipta

Steroid medicines (corticosteroids) to be inhaled come in a form for a
inhaler (MDI) or a dry
powder inhaler (DPI).

How It Works

Steroid medicines decrease inflammation in
the airways (reducing swelling and
mucus production), making breathing easier.

Why It Is Used

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.

How Well It Works

Research results on oral steroid medicines for COPD exacerbations show that:

  • They improve lung function, reduce the amount
    of time in the hospital, and reduce the incidence of treatment failure (return
    to the hospital, death, or the need for a tube inserted through the mouth or
    nose and into the chest to deliver oxygen [endotracheal intubation]).

Research on inhaled
steroid medicines:

  • Suggests that for some people they reduce the
    frequency of COPD exacerbations compared to a
  • Reports
    conflicting results on whether they improve lung function.

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:

  • Improved lung function and improved shortness
    of breath and less use of relief medicine compared to a placebo and compared to
    either medicine used alone.
  • Fewer COPD exacerbations compared to a

Combining a steroid medicine with a beta2-agonist and an
anticholinergic improved:

  • Lung function.
  • Quality of life.
  • The
    number of hospital visits.

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.

Side Effects

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:

  • Usually the benefits of the medicine are more important than any minor side effects.
  • Side effects may go away after you take the medicine for a while.
  • If side effects still bother you and you wonder if you should keep taking the medicine, call your doctor. He or she may be able to lower your dose or change your medicine. Do not suddenly quit taking your medicine unless your doctor tells you to.

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.

Oral corticosteroids (short-term use)

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.

Oral corticosteroids (long-term use)

Common side effects
of long-term use of oral steroid medicines include:

  • Osteoporosis
    (loss of bone).
  • Recurrent infections.
  • A cloudy area in
    the lens of the eye (cataracts).
  • Thin, fragile skin that
    bruises easily.
  • Increased risk for sores in the stomach (ulcers).

Inhaled steroids

Common side effects of inhaled steroid medicines include:

  • Sore mouth or sore throat.
  • Voice
    changes, such as hoarseness.
  • Growth of a
    fungus in the mouth, throat, or
    esophagus (thrush). This usually occurs only at high doses.

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
side effects.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug
Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

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.

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).

Taking medicine

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.

Advice for women

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, 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, breastfeeding, 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.


Other Works Consulted

  • Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense (2014). VA/DoD clinical practice guideline for the management of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. :// Accessed June 23, 2016.
  • Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (2016). Global strategy for diagnosis, management, and prevention of COPD – 2016. Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. :// Accessed June 23, 2016.


ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine Specialist Medical Reviewer Hasmeena Kathuria, MD – Pulmonology, Critical Care Medicine, Sleep Medicine

Current as ofDecember 6, 2017