Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease Guidelines 2022: Management and Treatment

Linda Girgis, MD


November 02, 2022

In the United States and around the globe, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) remains one of the leading causes of death. In addition to new diagnostic guidelines, the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease 2022 Report, or GOLD report, sets forth recommendations for management and treatment. In 2022, a total of 160 new references were added to the previous year’s GOLD report.

Linda Girgis, MD

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.

Medications and treatment goals for patients with COPD

Patients with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency may benefit from the addition of alpha-1 antitrypsin augmentation therapy, the new guidelines say. In patients with severe disease experiencing dyspnea, oral and parental opioids can be considered. Medications that are used to treat primary pulmonary hypertension are not advised to treat pulmonary hypertension secondary to COPD.

The treatment goals of COPD should be to decrease severity of symptoms, reduce the occurrence of exacerbations, and improve exercise tolerance. Peripheral eosinophil counts can be used to guide the use of ICS to prevent exacerbations. However, the best predictor of exacerbations is previous exacerbations. Frequent exacerbations are defined as two or more annually. Additionally, deteriorating airflow is correlated with increased risk of exacerbations, hospitalizations, and death. Forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) alone lacks precision to predict exacerbations or death.

Vaccines and pulmonary rehabilitation recommended

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization recommend several vaccines for stable patients with COPD. Influenza vaccine was shown to reduce serious complications in COPD patients. Pneumococcal vaccines (PCV13 and PPSV23) reduced the likelihood of COPD exacerbations. The COVID-19 vaccine also has been effective at reducing hospitalizations, in particular ICU admissions, and death in patients with COPD. The CDC also recommends TdaP and Zoster vaccines.

An acute exacerbation of COPD occurs when a patient experiences worsening of respiratory symptoms that requires additional treatment, according to the updated GOLD guidelines. They are usually associated with increased airway inflammation, mucous productions, and trapping of gases. They are often triggered by viral infections, but bacterial and environment factors play a role as well. Less commonly, fungi such as Aspergillus can be observed as well. COPD exacerbations contribute to overall progression of the disease.

In patients with hypoxemia, supplemental oxygen should be titrated to a target O2 saturation of 88%-92%. It is important to follow blood gases to be sure adequate oxygenation is taking place while at the same time avoiding carbon dioxide retention and/or worsening acidosis. In patients with severe exacerbations whose dyspnea does not respond to initial emergency therapy, ICU admission is warranted. Other factors indicating the need for ICU admission include mental status changes, persistent or worsening hypoxemia, severe or worsening respiratory acidosis, the need for mechanical ventilation, and hemodynamic instability. Following an acute exacerbation, steps to prevent further exacerbations should be initiated.

Systemic glucocorticoids are indicated during acute exacerbations. They have been shown to hasten recovery time and improve functioning of the lungs as well as oxygenation. It is recommended to give prednisone 40 mg per day for 5 days. Antibiotics should be used in exacerbations if patients have dyspnea, sputum production, and purulence of the sputum or require mechanical ventilation. The choice of which antibiotic to use should be based on local bacterial resistance.

Pulmonary rehabilitation is an important component of COPD management. It incorporates exercise, education, and self-management aimed to change behavior and improve conditioning. The benefits of rehab have been shown to be considerable. The optimal length is 6-8 weeks. Palliative and end-of-life care are also very important factors to consider when treating COPD patients, according to the GOLD guidelines.

COPD is a very common disease and cause of mortality seen by family physicians. The GOLD report is an extensive document providing very clear guidelines and evidence to support these guidelines in every level of the treatment of COPD patients. As primary care doctors, we are often the first to treat patients with COPD and it is important to know the latest guidelines.

Dr. Girgis practices family medicine in South River, N.J., and is a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Brunswick, N.J. You can contact her at

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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