6 Expert Tips for Living Well With COPD

Being proactive goes a long way towards staying healthy and active.

Elderly woman drinking tea outside.
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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe, often requires lifestyle changes. But if you’re living with this progressive condition, you’re not alone. About 12 million adults in the US are already diagnosed with COPD, and an equal number may have undiagnosed COPD, the U.S. National Institutes of Health reports.

Smoking is the number one risk factor for COPD, according to Nereida A. Parada, MD, a pulmonologist at the Grace Anne Dorney Pulmonary and Cardiac Rehabilitation Center at Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. It’s estimated that at least 25 percent of smokers will develop COPD, she points out.

While having COPD or other lung disease can limit your activities, Dr. Parada says there are several steps patients can take to control their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Red burst radiates as a man grasps his chest.
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Make sure it’s not more than COPD

Having other conditions in addition to COPD may limit your ability to exercise and tolerate physical activity, Parada cautions. “People with advanced COPD also may have heart problems and people who have heart problems may also have COPD, especially if they used to smoke or are still smoking," she says. "It may not just be COPD.” Make sure that a qualified physician properly evaluates you for other conditions like heart failure, coronary artery disease and atrial fibrillation.

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Stick with your rehab program

Participating in a pulmonary rehabilitation (rehab) program is one of the most important things people with COPD or asthma can do to help manage their condition. “I believe mind-body medicine, which is really what pulmonary rehab is all about, is very important for people with COPD to know about,” Parada says. “Nutrition, exercise, relaxation and how we can attain that—all of these principles are central to pulmonary rehab.” Unfortunately, she notes, too many people discontinue practicing what they learned once their formal program is complete. “Continuous engagement with exercise and self-care is very important,” she adds. 

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Exercise is a major component of pulmonary rehab. People with advanced disease may have difficulty with daily activities, such as brushing their teeth or combing their hair, so arm and cardiovascular exercises, such as walking, are very important, Parada explains. Exercise will help enable to you to perform daily activities without being extremely short of breath, according to Parada.

“Once you start exercising, it gets easier and the benefits last a long time," she says. "Pulmonary rehab really engages the entire body. It builds endurance and is very important to improve your whole life.” Speak with your doctor about how to continue exercise after your pulmonary rehab program ends.

Middle-aged woman gets a needle in her arm administered by male doctor.
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Try to avoid harmful germs

No one wants to get sick, especially if you already have a disease that compromises your lung function.

  • Get a flu shot. “Flu shots are a must,” Parada says. Early- to mid-fall is the time to get your flu shot.
  • Get the pneumonia vaccinations. Adults with COPD between the ages of 19 and 64 should receive a PPSV23 vaccination, which targets the 23 most common strains of pneumonia. When they turn 65, they should be vaccinated with Prevnar 13. At least year after that—and at least five years after your first PPSV23 shot—you should receive another dose of PPSV23.
  • Don’t touch your eyes or nose. “It seems so simple, but it’s such a difficult habit to break,” Parada says. "If something is bothering your eyes or nose, the first thing you do is bring your hands to your face. It doesn’t matter how many times you wash your hands. You bring viruses into your mucus membranes via your hands.” Use the back of your hands to alleviate an itch or over-secretion (such as a runny nose) and only use tissues once, Parada advises. And, yes, wash your hands well and often!
  • Limit contact with others who are—or who may be—sick. If you’re traveling during flu season, consider wearing a protective mask, or change seats on the plane if you’re near someone who appears to be ill. Ask people around you to cover their cough. Avoid visiting with grandchildren or others who may be sick.

Call your doctor immediately if you’re concerned you were exposed to a bug, Parada says. Sometimes you can take preventive anti-viral

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Watch your local air quality

Stay inside on days when the local air quality is poor, especially if you live near a manufacturing plant, such as a coal or oil processing facility. “There are exposures that affect people with pulmonary conditions,” Parada says.

Closeup of hands breaking a cigarette in half.
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Stop smoking

No conversation about lung health would be complete without talking about smoking. “Smoking cessation is the most important thing someone with COPD can do,” Parada urges. It can stop the more rapid deterioration of lung function and allow for a longer life with diminishing symptoms instead of allowing it to get worse. If you’re a smoker, talk to your healthcare provider about the strategies and resources available to help you quit.

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