Tips for Living with COPD
11 Ways to Live Better With COPD
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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — or COPD for short — is a progressive lung disease, meaning it gets worse over time. It can cause symptoms like coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightening — and it may even interfere with your breathing at times.
While there may be times when COPD limits your ability to do even simple activities like walking or cooking, the good news is that COPD doesn’t have to render you powerless. There are many ways to proactively manage COPD symptoms, slow the progression of the disease, and enhance your quality of life.
Start with these 11 tips that can make a real difference and help you live better with COPD:
1. Get vaccinated. COPD flares, also known as exacerbations, are often caused by colds and the flu. Protect yourself by getting your yearly flu vaccine. Keep in mind that it’s better to get a standard shot than a nasal spray vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to the annual flu vaccine, it’s important to get the pneumonia vaccine at least once before age 65, with two booster doses at 65 years or older as recommended by your doctor.
But don’t stop there, says Barry J. Make, MD, professor of medicine in the division of pulmonary sciences and critical care medicine at the University of Colorado Denver and director of pulmonary rehabilitation and respiratory care and co-director of the COPD program at National Jewish Health in Denver. You also want to guard against whooping cough, which is often given in a combination vaccine called Tdap that also protects against tetanus and diphtheria. If you’re over 60, your doctor may also recommend a zoster vaccine to help protect against shingles. By getting these vaccines, you’ll help minimize your risk for infections that can lead to COPD complications.
2. Avoid germs. Do your best to steer clear of people who are sick, says Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonologist in private practice and medical spokesperson for Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Be sure to stay away from crowds during cold and flu season to help prevent germs from getting you sick. “Hand washing is key, as is keeping your hands off of your face,” Dr. Horovitz adds.
3. Quit smoking. Smoking is the most significant risk factor for COPD, says Dr. Make. Don’t be fooled into thinking that e-cigarettes are any better for you if you have COPD. “E-cigarettes may not have tar or smoke, but they have other ingredients, such as flavorings, that you’re inhaling, and we don’t know the effects of these, so we can’t say they are safe," he says. If you want to quit, use smoking cessation aids that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), such as nicotine gum and patches.
4. Keep your air clean.Air quality can also trigger breathlessness and other COPD symptoms, says Horovitz. And indoor air can sometimes be more polluted than the air outdoors. “Make sure your indoor air is as clean as it can be by using a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.” These filters can remove as much as 99 percent of indoor air pollutants. Other tips for improving indoor air include getting rid of wall-to-wall carpets and cleaning with green products or with natural cleaners like soap and water, baking soda, and vinegar.
5. Stay in shape.“People with COPD shouldn’t be too heavy or too thin,” Make says. If you’re overweight, your heart and lungs have to work harder to supply your body with oxygen. If you’re underweight, you might not be eating enough nutrients to get you the energy you need to do everyday tasks. To help maintain a healthy weight, eat a well-balanced diet and get regular exercise, which can also improve circulation and help your body use oxygen more efficiently. If you’re not sure if your weight is healthy or unhealthy, talk to your doctor.
6. Eat smaller meals.“Many people with COPD feel breathless after a large meal,” says Make. He advises eating smaller meals throughout the day to avoid that “too-full” feeling. Smaller meals can also help if you struggle with a lack of appetite. Because the increased effort of breathing in COPD causes you to burn more calories, make sure your meals provide high quality nutrition. Consult a registered dietitian to help you understand how to make the most of your calories.
7. Reduce stress.Stress can make any underlying condition worse, including COPD, says Horovitz. “Regular exercise and a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night are the best stress reducers out there,” he says. Exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing when you have COPD, but it improves COPD symptoms and will ultimately give you more energy, so talk to your doctor about how to develop an exercise regimen that will work for you.
8. Keep rescue medications on hand.Don't be afraid to use your prescribed short-acting beta agonists as rescue medications if you have trouble breathing or getting sputum (saliva and mucus) up. That’s what they're there for, says Make. But if you find yourself consistently using your rescue inhaler more than usual, talk to your doctor. You should also be sure to take your daily medications as directed.
9. Practice breathing techniques. Pursed lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing can help you conserve breath and stay active longer. Here’s how pursed lip breathing is done: Purse your lips and blow as much air out as you can before taking a deep breath in, and then slow down your breath so that you are using as much of your lungs as you can. To practice diaphragmatic breathing, relax your shoulders and place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. As you inhale through your nose, you should feel your stomach move outward. Press lightly on your stomach as you breathe out through pursed lips to help release air.
10. Keep in touch with your doctor.Don’t be a stranger, says Horovitz. Check in with your doctor when you're in distress or have a symptom that is new or unexplained, he adds. "This open communication can nip a COPD flare in the bud.”
11. Be prepared.Talk to your doctor about creating a COPD action plan so you know the best treatment to have on hand at home in case of a flare. This might include a home nebulizer and oxygen, Horovitz says. Finally, discuss with your doctor what symptoms should prompt you to use these treatments, as well as when it may be necessary to call a doctor and head to a hospital instead.
Managing COPD symptoms can be stressful at times, but these tips can help make living with COPD easier. Avoiding triggers and staying as healthy as possible will go a long way in treating this progressive lung condition.
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