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Living with COPD: Tips for COPD Management

July 19, 2019

Approximately 16 million Americans are now living with a diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Millions more have the disease but haven’t been diagnosed, the agency adds. COPD is a disease that impacts a person’s ability to breathe, and it gets worse over time. But there are steps you can take to make it easier to live with and slow its progression.

What Is COPD?

COPD is an inflammatory lung disease that results in significant breathing difficulties. It generally takes one of two forms:

  • Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation or irritation in the lung’s bronchioles. These are the passageways connecting the lungs to the windpipe to carry air in and out of the lungs. The irritation stimulates heavy mucus production in the lungs that interferes with breathing. The body tries to expel the mucus through chronic coughing.
  • Emphysema is the damage done to the walls of the air spaces — called alveoli — in the lungs, where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged. Because this reduces the ability for the bloodstream to absorb oxygen, emphysema results in an ongoing feeling of not being able to get enough air.

Both chronic bronchitis and emphysema can be caused by smoking tobacco, along with long-term exposure to pollution, chemicals or dusts. Over time, COPD can severely impact daily life. According to the CDC, 1 in 4 adults with COPD say they are unable to work, and half say they limit their activities because of health problems. More than one-third of adults with the disease have trouble walking or climbing stairs.

Treatment Options

Although there isn't a cure for COPD, and it does tend to get worse with time, there are options to help slow its progression. Quitting smoking, if you’re currently a smoker, is at the top of the list. This is an important move to keep the disease from getting worse. Other treatments your doctor might suggest include:

  • Pulmonary rehabilitation. This is a personalized program that can include working with a team of specialists, including dieticians, physical therapists and social workers. It combines practice in exercise, breathing techniques and relaxation with information on nutrition and medications. The goal is to build fitness and improve breathing ability.
  • Oxygen therapy. Using supplemental oxygen increases survival rates for people with COPD. It also can make sleeping easier, so you’re more alert during the day and have an easier time with other life activities.
  • Bronchodilators. These inhaled medicines relax airway muscles to make breathing easier and relieve coughing and shortness of breath.
  • Corticosterioids. Also inhaled, corticosteroids can reduce airway inflammation to help prevent flare-ups.
  • Antibiotics. These medications might be prescribed to treat bacterial respiratory infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia. It’s important to finish your entire prescription, even if you start feeling better.
  • Vaccinations. Getting pneumonia and flu vaccinations is especially important if you have COPD. You can be at higher risk of getting pneumonia, which can make your COPD worse. And flu shots have been shown to reduce hospitalizations and doctors' visits — and lower the risk of sickness and death — for people with the disease.