Health Library

Categories > Breathing Disorders > COPD

Breathe easy: Managing COPD

If you suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you know how every breath can be a struggle. COPD, the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, occurs when chronic bronchitis or emphysema causes an airway obstruction, making it harder to get oxygen in and carbon dioxide out.

Symptoms of COPD include a chronic cough, increased mucous production, shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness and recurrent respiratory infections—but these may not appear until major lung damage has already occurred.

Most cases are caused by smoke exposure, and smoking accounts for up to 90 percent of COPD deaths. Other risk factors for COPD include being 40 or older, being exposed to work-related dust and chemicals and having a rare genetic disorder known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.

Treatment tactics

While you can’t undo lung damage, you can reduce symptoms. Your doctor will likely urge you to quit smoking—which can help keep your condition from worsening. Talk with your healthcare provider about smoking cessation tools such as nicotine-replacement therapy and support programs, as well as medications. Drugs like broncho-dilators and inhaled steroids can help ease respiration, and antibiotics can help fight infections that aggravate COPD.

For moderate to more severe cases, additional measures such as portable oxygen tanks, rehabilitation programs or surgery to remove damaged portions of the lung may be recommended.

Lighten up on your lungs

You do have some control over how you feel. Try these COPD self-help measures:

  • Control breathing. Talk to your healthcare provider about relaxation and breathing techniques to help maximize your airflow.
  • Keep airways clear. Drink plenty of water and use a humidifier in your home to help loosen mucus in your lungs.
  • Exercise. A regular workout can help build up your respiratory muscles.
  • Eat healthfully. Nutritious foods can help you maintain your strength and control your weight. Excess weight makes it harder to breathe.
  • Avoid smoke. Don’t light up and don’t go where others do. Secondhand smoke can cause further lung damage.
  • Treat GERD. If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the backflow of acid can worsen your COPD. Talk to your healthcare provider about GERD treatments.
  • See your healthcare provider regularly. He or she needs to monitor your lung function, even if you’re feeling OK.

Despite taking precautions, you can still suffer episodes of COPD exacerbation. It’s important to seek immediate medical treatment if your symptoms suddenly worsen because it can lead to lung failure.