It's not easy to hear that you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But if you've been diagnosed with the condition, you've already taken a major positive step for your future health.
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Although roughly 16 million Americans reportedly have COPD, a disease that causes difficulty breathing, experts believe millions of other people don't know they have it, and therefore aren't being treated for it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
COPD is not curable, and the condition gets worse over time, so it's important to be treated as soon as possible.
"The goal is to diagnose patients early, so we can start working with them and help them achieve a better quality of life," says Rahat Hussain, MD, a pulmonary and critical care specialist with UT Physicians and McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.
Common treatments for COPD include medications such as bronchodilators, which are taken with inhalers, and oxygen therapy, in which oxygen can be delivered through a mask.
There are also lifestyle changes you can make at home to manage the condition and help you live a healthier life with COPD. Here are seven steps you can take to start feeling better.
1. If You Smoke, Quit
Smoking is the leading cause of COPD, responsible for an estimated 85 to 90 percent of all cases, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). Cigarette smoke contain toxins that damage your lungs and airways, worsening your COPD and making it more difficult to breathe.
If you currently smoke — and about 38 percent of people with COPD do, according to the CDC — the most important thing you can do is to quit, says Dr. Hussain.
You can find some nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) over the counter, including patches, gums or lozenges; or you can ask your doctor for prescription NRTs such as inhalers or nasal sprays. Doctors can also prescribe a prescription pill such as bupropion or varenicline, which may help you kick the habit.
A smoking cessation counselor or support group can also help you manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
Be sure, too, to steer clear of secondhand smoke, including smoke from cigars, hookahs or pipes.
2. Pull Up Your Carpet (or Clean It Regularly)
Carpets are havens for lung irritants such as dust mites, mold spores and environmental pollutants, which then become airborne when you walk on the floor or vacuum it.
Can't swap your carpeting for hardwood floors? Try purchasing an air purifier that has a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, says Dr. Hussain. "HEPA filters usually take care of close to 99 percent of particulate matter like dust and smoke," he says.
HEPA Air Purifiers to Consider
3. Do Breathing Exercises
When you have COPD, you may sometimes struggle to take a good, deep breath. To get more oxygen into your lungs when you breathe, the ALA recommends doing belly breathing (or diaphragmatic breathing) daily.
To Practice Belly Breathing:
- Start in a comfortable position, such as sitting up in a chair or lying on a bed. With your hands on your belly, take a deep breath in through your nose, feeling your stomach expand.
- Hold your breath for 1 to 2 seconds (or longer, if you can tolerate it), then slowly exhale through your mouth.
- Repeat for 5 to 10 minutes.
When you do belly breathing, you're also exercising your diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle located below your lungs that helps control your breathing, says Dr. Hussain.
Another type of breathing that can help get more oxygen into your lungs when you're short of breath, according to the ALA, is pursed lip breathing.
To Practice Pursed Lip Breathing:
- Start by sitting in an upright position. Slowly breathe in through your nose and silently count to "two."
- "Pucker" or "purse" your lips and exhale through your mouth.
- Repeat the process until you can catch your breath.
4. Get Tested for Sleep Apnea
Some people who have COPD also have sleep apnea, a disorder in which people temporarily stop breathing while they sleep. And untreated sleep apnea — which can cause headaches and fatigue during the day — can also make COPD worse, says pulmonologist MeiLan Han, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care at the University of Michigan and spokesperson for the ALA.
If your doctor suspects you have sleep apnea, you may have to take part in a sleep study, which can be done at home or at a specialized sleep center.
The most common treatment for sleep apnea is a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which helps to keep your airways open while you sleep, according to the National Institutes of Health.
5. Go for a Walk. Every Day.
"Most people who are diagnosed with COPD don't exercise regularly because they were feeling short of breath for months," says Dr. Hussain.
Exercise doesn't just strengthen our muscles, however — it also improves our body's ability to shuttle oxygen into our bloodstream and muscles, which boosts our physical fitness levels and allows us to breathe easier, per the ALA.
Try to walk for at least 20 minutes a day, says Dr. Hussain.
Not used to exercising? Start out with a 5-minute walk, suggests Dr. Han. Once you can do that comfortably, try to increase the time to 10 minutes, then 15, gradually working your way up to 20.
Once you're able to take a 20-minute walk, you might try picking up your pace or walking on a slight incline, she says.
6. Get a Flu Shot
The flu can be dangerous for anyone, but it can be especially life-threatening for people with COPD. That's because the influenza virus can trigger an "exacerbation" — i.e., flare-up in the severity of a person's symptoms that can last for a month or more, per the American Thoracic Society.
The best way to protect yourself against the flu is by getting an annual flu shot. One January 2019 study in CHEST found that the influenza vaccine could reduce the number of flu-related hospitalizations among people with COPD by nearly 38 percent.
The CDC tells people to get vaccinated in early fall, before the flu season begins, because it takes about two weeks for your body to start producing the antibodies that protect against the flu.
7. Know When to Rest
A regular exercise routine can go a long way in boosting your fitness levels. But even if you work out regularly, there may be times when you need to conserve your energy. And that's OK.
If you're going for a long walk, for example, try to find a place to take a rest or use a walker that has a built-in seat, says Dr. Han.
Don't get discouraged if you aren't seeing results quickly, says Dr. Hussain, who adds that it can take weeks to notice an improvement in your breathing, even after doing breathing exercises or starting a daily walking routine.
"The goal is to incorporate these [tips] into your lifestyle, and they will help you do the things that you love to do," he says.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)"
- American Lung Association: "COPD Causes and Risk Factors"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Smoking and COPD"
- American Lung Association: "Carpets"
- American Lung Association: "Belly Breathing"
- American Lung Association: "COPD Management Tools"
- National Institutes of Health: "Sleep Apnea"
- American Lung Association: "Exercise and Lung Health"
- American Thoracic Society: "Exacerbation of COPD"
- CHEST: "Effectiveness of Influenza Vaccination on Hospitalizations and Risk Factors for Severe Outcomes in Hospitalized Patients With COPD"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Who Needs a Flu Vaccine and When"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.