Surgical Lung & Chest Care
From the Thoracic Surgery Team at Columbia University

Nonsurgical Lung Treatments

There are a variety of nonsurgical methods for treating lung conditions: medications, lifestyle changes, and other therapies (like radiation). Some of these can be used alongside surgical treatments, while others can be used by themselves. Several factors, such as the type of condition and its severity, will determine which treatment is most effective.

Key Facts

  • While surgery is considered the most effective way to treat many lung conditions, it may not be an option for some patients due to their health or personal preferences.
  • Nonsurgical treatment methods for lung conditions can be broadly organized into three categories: medications, lifestyle changes, and other therapies.
  • Some nonsurgical treatments can alleviate the general symptoms of lung disease, while others are targeted toward specific conditions.

Types

Nonsurgical lung treatments are meant to either ease the symptoms and complications of lung disease or help eliminate the disease altogether. Often, they are used with surgery to increase the chances of successful treatment. However, there are several reasons why someone may need to use only nonsurgical treatment methods for their lung condition:

  • Advanced stage cancer
  • Age
  • Location of tumor or diseased tissue
  • Personal reasons
  • Pre-existing conditions

Procedure

Nonsurgical lung treatments can be divided into three general categories: medication, therapies, and lifestyle changes. Each of these treatment methods have their own advantages and purposes. While some are meant to treat specific conditions, others help reduce the general symptoms of lung disease.

Medications

In most cases, the purpose of medication is to reduce the symptoms of lung disease, such as coughing and excessive swelling. Medications work through different ways: some reduce inflammation, some fight cancer cells, others widen up the airways in your lungs.

While there are many specific kinds of medication for treating lung disease, the following are the most common general types:

  • Antibiotics: This is a standard treatment for lung diseases like pneumonia and bronchiectasis. Antibiotics can be used both for acute illnesses, but also during flare-ups of chronic conditions. Patients may take several different types of antibiotics at once to reduce the chances of the bacteria becoming resistant to medications.
  • Bronchodilators: Bronchodilators work by relaxing the muscles in the lungs and airways to make breathing easier. They are usually taken using an inhaler either daily or as needed to treat conditions such as COPD and asthma. Albuterol and levalbuterol are common examples.
  • Corticosteroids: These medications can help reduce harmful swelling in the lungs. They are often given at the outset of symptoms, sometimes with immunosuppressants. They can either be inhaled or taken orally. Patients may take them daily or as needed to treat a variety of conditions, such as asthma and COPD. Common examples are prednisone and methylprednisolone.
  • Expectorants: This type of drug helps loosen and break up excess mucus so that it can be expelled. While there are many over-the-counter expectorants, natural remedies like steam can also help. Expectorants are typically used as needed.
  • Immunosuppressants: These medications help keep the body’s immune system from attacking the lungs and other organs. This can reduce or even stop additional damage. They are most often used to treat conditions like autoimmune ILD.
  • Oxygen Therapy: This treatment involves giving patients additional oxygen through a mask or breathing tube as needed. While it cannot reverse or slow damage, it can help ease symptoms by making it easier to breathe. Portable oxygen is an option for people who need home therapy.

Lifestyle Changes

Making healthy, long-term lifestyle changes is another way to manage the symptoms of lung disease. While they may not be able to entirely eliminate a condition, the following can help improve a patient’s quality of life, especially when other treatments are not successful:

  • Breathing Exercises: There are several breathing exercises patients with lung disease can do to strengthen their lungs, increase their lung capacity, and make breathing easier. These can be done daily or as needed.
  • Dietary Changes: Following a diet that contains a healthy amount of proteins, nutrients, carbohydrates, fibers, and fats can help patients maintain their weight and strength and breathe easier. Patients with lung disease should work with a nutritionist to determine a diet that is right for them.
  • Regular Exercise: Like breathing exercises and dietary changes, physical exercise can help patients maintain their strength so they can breathe easier. Patients should consult with a doctor or specialist to come up with a proper exercise routine.
  • Pulmonary Rehabilitation: Think of it like physical therapy, but for your lungs. Pulmonary rehab combines breathing exercises, dietary changes, physical exercise, and peer support. It is led by a rehabilitation team made up of doctors, nurses, and specialists who create a personalized program for each patient.

Other Therapies

This category involves other therapies used for lung conditions, such as radiation therapy, to stop additional damage or eliminate the disease. Many of these therapies are intended to treat cancer. The following are the most common:

  • Chemotherapy: In this treatment, a combination of different medicines that attack and destroy cancer cells are administered intravenously over the course of several weeks. This is often done in combination with surgery to lower the chance of recurrence.
  • Immunotherapy: This type of therapy boosts the body’s own immune system to help it fight cancer. It may involve injecting immune-enhancing drugs, proteins, or antibodies. It is often done in combination with other therapies and/or surgery.
  • Radiation Therapy: This treatment uses highly focused beams of radiation, such as x-rays, to destroy cancer cells. It is typically used in combination with chemotherapy and surgery.
  • Targeted Drug Therapy: This treatment uses drugs designed to target key features identified within cancer cells. By disabling these features, the drugs destroy the cancer. It can be used alongside other treatments, such as chemotherapy, or on its own. 

Alternatives

Nonsurgical treatment methods may not be enough on their own to slow the progress of a lung condition. In these cases, it may be necessary to turn to surgical treatment methods. There are a variety of surgical methods available, including minimally invasive procedures, that may help slow or stop lung damage. Which one is best will depend on the condition, its severity, and the overall health of the patient.

Read more about surgical treatments for lung disease.

Risks and Complications

As with any treatment, nonsurgical methods of treating lung disease all come with certain risks. However, depending on the treatment, these can vary widely. Patients should consult with their doctor or healthcare professional to learn about any risks and complications before beginning a treatment.

What to Expect Afterwards

The outlook for nonsurgical treatment methods varies greatly depending on the type of treatment and the condition. Some forms of treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, are administered over a specified time and will require patients to recover for several days to weeks afterwards. Other treatments, such as many medications and lifestyle changes, must be taken regularly or as symptoms arise.

Next Steps

Whether you’ve had surgery and want to reduce your risk of recurrence or need an alternative to surgery altogether, nonsurgical treatment methods are an essential way we can help ensure the long-term health of our patients. Our multidisciplinary team not only includes doctors and nurses across specialities, but also nutritionists, physical therapists, counselors, and many other health care professionals who can help you come up with a nonsurgical treatment plan built specifically for you.

If you need help for a lung or chest issue, we’re here for you. Call (212) 305-3408 for existing patients, (212) 304-7535 for new patients, or request an appointment online to get started today.

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