Living with COPD

Making important lifestyle changes, taking medications and paying close attention to your health are among the many ways to enjoy a full life, even with COPD.

Doctors have yet to find a cure for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But even as research continues, there are many things people with this condition can do to feel better.

"Be optimistic," says Dr. Norman H. Edelman, American Lung Association senior scientific adviser. "Some people maintain good function for many, many years."

One of the keys to preserving long-term lung function is to take good care of yourself today. Here's a look at some of the ways you can do that:

Stop smoking. "First and foremost is smoking cessation," Dr. Edelman says. "It's absolutely imperative that people with COPD stop smoking."

Not only is smoking the leading cause of COPD, failing to quit is one of the main reasons it gets worse.

"We realize [quitting] is hard," Dr. Edelman says. But help is available.

Often, the most effective method combines strategies, such as attending a support group and taking a nicotine replacement product, he says. Your doctor can help you find a smoking cessation plan that will work for you.

You can also learn more about quitting in the Smoking health topic center.

Avoid other lung irritants. This includes secondhand tobacco smoke, pollution, dust and chemical fumes.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends staying inside with windows closed on days when it's dusty outside or when air pollution is a problem. If you're having your house painted or sprayed for insects, do so when you're able to stay away for a while.

Take your medicine. Your doctor may be able to recommend medications to improve, prevent or reduce the severity of your symptoms.

Medicines for COPD include drugs to help relax and open airways and to decrease inflammation, among others. People with advanced COPD may need supplemental oxygen therapy.

If your doctor prescribes medicines for COPD, make sure to follow the directions for using them. Refill your medicines before you run out and keep a list of everything you're taking.

Make doctor visits routine. Even if you're feeling fine, see your doctor regularly. Among other things, these visits allow your doctor to evaluate your condition, adjust your medications and make sure your vaccinations—including an annual flu shot—are up-to-date.

Stay active. Ask your doctor how much exercise you should get.

Exercise "sounds a little paradoxical," Dr. Edelman says, since people with COPD can become short of breath during activity. But regular exercise improves conditioning, strengthens the heart and allows the body to do more, even when the lungs aren't working at 100%.

Learn from others. Joining a support group is a good way to share practical tips on managing symptoms, Dr. Edelman says. You may, for example, discover some easier ways to cook, clean or do other household chores.

A support group can also help with feelings of anxiety, fear and depression, which are common among people with COPD.

If these feelings seem overwhelming, talk to your doctor. Medications may be helpful. You also may benefit from talking with a mental health professional.

Be ready for an emergency. COPD symptoms can become severe quickly. Before that happens, "discuss with your doctor exactly what to do if you get worse," Dr. Edelman says.

Your action plan should be in writing and may include instructions on which medications to take, when to call your doctor and when to go to the hospital.

For example, the NHLBI recommends getting emergency medical help if:

  • You have trouble catching your breath, walking or talking.
  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue or gray.
  • Your heart is beating very fast.
  • You're becoming less mentally alert.

Living with COPD can be a challenge. But with the right support, you can continue to lead a full life.

"Do everything you can to the extent you can," Dr. Edelman says. "Try to accept COPD as a fact of life rather than as something that defines your life."

reviewed 9/26/2019

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