Live Better with COPD

From quitting smoking to undergoing oxygen therapy, these 10 tips can help you breathe easier.

Nearly 15 million Americans have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). When a person suffers from COPD, air has a hard time getting through the airways in the lungs and does not move in and out of air sacs correctly. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two manifestations of COPD. The former disease causes the lung airways to become inflamed, while the latter gradually damages the lung’s air sacs.

Although there is currently no cure for COPD, you can live a full life while managing the disease. It’s important to develop a comprehensive strategy for managing COPD. This strategy should include both medical and non-medical measures.

It’s crucial not to underestimate the severity of COPD. If you or someone you love has received a COPD diagnosis, start treatment immediately in order to best preserve lung health. The following 10 steps will help set you on the road to improved lung health.

1) Start by stopping.

Although it’s one of the hardest habits to kick, quitting smoking is chief of all measures that can manage COPD. The COPD Foundation says it is the number one most important thing you can do in your efforts to manage symptoms.

If you’re having difficulty quitting or don’t quite know where to start, you can visit smokefree.gov—there you’ll find assistance and encouragement in your journey to better your health and combat your COPD.

But don’t go cold turkey or try to go it alone.

“You need family, friends, and co-workers,” says Dr. Michael Czarnecki, a pulmonologist with Kindred Hospital and Pulmonary & Critical Care Consultants of Chattanooga. “The patients who are most successful have social support – a network of people who encourage them and want to see them quit.”

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Dr. Niraj Niraula, a pulmonologist with UT Erlanger Respiratory Critical Care, says a physician can also provide crucial support. “Smoking cessation is very difficult, but a doctor can offer different medications and techniques to make it easier,” he says.

2) Work closely with your doctor.

After you’ve received a COPD diagnosis and created a game plan to quit smoking, your work with your doctor is not over. It’s important to stay connected with your doctor and to work with him or her to develop a plan for managing your COPD.

“For patients who work closely with a doctor, hospital readmission rates go down,” says Dr. Niraula. “These patients are also less likely to suffer from flare-ups.”

Most individuals with COPD will be prescribed some form of controller medication. According to the COPD Foundation, controller medications will not immediately help your breathing improve, but they will help keep your lungs open and can prevent exacerbations of COPD.

“There’s nothing worse than constantly struggling to breathe,” says Dr. Niraula. “Controller medications come in to help you live fuller and better, with an overall higher quality of life.”

After you work with your doctor to develop a management plan for your COPD, it’s essential that you follow the plan of attack. To keep yourself on track, set alarm reminders for taking medication, tell a friend or family member about your management strategies, and ask others for help in keeping you accountable. The work you do in your doctor’s office will only come to fruition if you follow through on the plan you have created.

3) Ask about pulmonary rehabilitation.

A common treatment option for people suffering from COPD, pulmonary rehabilitation combines exercise, education, and support to treat the breathing problems caused by COPD. Using a team approach, it can help you start exercising, even slowly and for only a few minutes, and teach you breathing techniques and lifestyle changes that can help with
symptoms.

“A formal rehab program can help you regain control of your life by improving your body mass index and overall health status,” says Dr. Carlos Baleeiro, a pulmonologist with Buz Standefer Lung Center at CHI Memorial. “It will also lower your chances of ending up in the hospital. Studies show that on average it reduces the days of hospitalization by 23 days a year.”

 

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4) Ask about oxygen therapy.

Some individuals suffering from COPD do not get enough oxygen in their blood and have difficulty expelling carbon dioxide. For those people, the COPD Foundation suggests the use of oxygen therapy. Oxygen therapy delivers oxygen to your body either through prongs in your nostrils, a face mask, or a tube inserted into your windpipe.

“For people with chronically low oxygen levels, oxygen therapy improves both quality of life and survival odds,” says Dr. Baleeiro. “A recent study showed it improved five-year survival rates by about 20%.”

Oxygen therapy can be administered in several different ways, from a small tank filled with liquid oxygen to a portable concentrator. “Nowadays there are so many options,” says Dr. Baleeiro. “It allows patients to choose which is best for their lifestyle.”

5) Stay well.

Getting sick can quickly make lung problems caused by COPD even worse, so it’s important to stay as healthy as possible. While we can’t always prevent the occasional cold, there are a few steps you can take to stay well. Stay up-to-date on your immunizations, get quality sleep every night, eat vitamin-rich and nutritious foods, and be sure to wash your hands frequently. The COPD Foundation recommends always watching out for early warning signs of illness. If you can catch it early, you can work with your doctor to avoid exacerbating your COPD.

6) Stay active.

We all know the importance of exercise for our general health, but there are also specific exercises that can help improve your breathing. The American Lung Association recommends aerobic exercises like walking, biking, and swimming. In addition to aerobic exercise, they point to resistance training and stretches as important parts of exercising for someone with COPD.

If you have trouble knowing where or how to start, just take it slow. Walk around the block or just down your driveway, talk with a physical therapist, or join a community center that offers classes and facilities that make exercising with COPD more manageable.

Remember, too, that staying active can manage aspects of your condition beyond breathing. “Exercising, going out, and maintaining a social life are important for your emotional and mental status,” says Dr. Baleeiro. “When you are able to do more, you feel better about yourself. Staying active both improves endurance and gives you a sense of well-being.”

7) Learn how to breathe easy.

The COPD Foundation recommends two easy-to-learn breathing techniques: pursed-lips breathing and abdominal breathing. Pursed-lips breathing involves breathing in through your nose for two seconds, pursing your lips like you’re about to blow out a candle, and then breathing out slowly through your pursed lips for 4-6 seconds.

“It’s one of the simplest ways for COPD patients to control their breathing,” says Dr. Czarnecki. “It may feel like a minor thing, but for patients who are really struggling, this little technique can significantly improve quality of life, especially during physical activity.”

To practice abdominal breathing, relax your shoulders and put your hands on your chest and belly. As you inhale through your nose, your belly will push out and should move more than your chest. As you breathe out through your mouth, press softly on your abdomen.

8) Monitor your air quality.

The American Lung Association recommends avoiding dust and fumes as well as monitoring air quality and air pollution in your area. If you’re unsure how to monitor the quality of air you’re living with, you can visit epa.gov/airnow. The American Lung Association also provides a downloadable app called “State of the Air” that gives daily updates on the air quality in your area.

Dr. Czarnecki says to pay close attention to the air quality within your own home, too. “If anyone else smokes, ensure they don’t smoke in the house or around you,” he says. “You should also limit exposure to dust irritants, wood-burning stoves, dog dander, and cockroach dander.”

9) Be prepared.

Knowledge is power when it comes to COPD. If you prepare for potential complications associated with the disease, you are more likely to manage and recover from those complications. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends calling your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms getting worse or if you suspect you might have an infection. “If you have a flare-up, your doctor can start early antibiotics so that you don’t have to go to the hospital,” says Dr. Czarnecki.

The Institute also suggests putting important phone numbers for your doctor, hospital, and an emergency contact in an easily accessible place. It’s also important to have a prepared list of any and all medications you’re currently taking, in case of an emergency.

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10) Get support.

In addition to the physical discomforts and difficulties caused by COPD, the disease presents a number of psychological burdens. Depression, stress, and anxiety often accompany the physical effects of COPD. The National Institute of Health recommends joining a patient support group as one way to mentally cope with a COPD diagnosis. Patient support groups provide a place where individuals suffering from COPD can share symptoms, coping mechanisms, and management techniques that may or may not have worked for them.

The COPD Foundation also notes that you should tell your doctor if you’re feeling depressed or anxious. It’s important to remember that COPD is a difficult disease to cope with, and there is no need to feel ashamed for feeling overwhelmed or depressed.

A COPD diagnosis can be tough to deal with, both mentally and physically. But you can live a full life with COPD by managing your symptoms with the help of a doctor. Take these 10 tips to heart, talk with your doctor, and get ready to live better with COPD. “Quality of life with COPD is not what it used to be,” says Dr. Niraula. “It’s better, and it can be made better!”

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