What is COPD?
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a group of lung diseases that makes it harder to breathe. COPD is also progressive, which means it will worsen over time. Talk to your doctor about treatment and lifestyle changes that may help you manage your condition. If you’d like some help with the conversation, get the free guide.
Chronic bronchitis is a condition where the airways in the lungs are persistently inflamed. This causes:
- increased cough
- reduced air flow
Bronchitis may be considered chronic (or long-term) if a person coughs and produces excess mucus most days for at least 3 months in each of 2 consecutive years.
Emphysema is a condition where the air sacs (alveoli) inside the lungs are affected. Healthy air sacs expand when you breathe in and return to their original size when you breathe out. But with emphysema:
- air sacs have become enlarged
- air sacs cannot return to normal size
When air sacs are not emptying as they should, it causes air to become trapped, making it hard for air to enter.
COPD can be mild, moderate, or severe. To make this determination, your doctor will examine you, give you a breathing test (spirometry), and assess your medical history. Then they will see where you fall on the GOLD* classification. There are GOLD grades (formerly called stages) 1-4 (with 4 being the most severe), which refer to the severity of your COPD based on your lung function. And then there are GOLD groups A-D (with D being very severe) based on your flare-up risk and symptom burden. Together, all of the information gathered from these 2 assessments will determine where you stand with your COPD.
*GOLD stands for Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease.
You probably know the COPD symptoms that are normal for you. But did you know that they can evolve or change over time? And sometimes they can be hard to recognize as COPD. Why? Because people may mistake symptoms for “getting older” in general. Or assume a symptom is caused by weight gain and not COPD.
If your current symptoms change or if you have new ones, don’t dismiss them—tell your doctor. And if you’re currently on a maintenance medication, your doctor may consider switching your treatment.
COPD symptoms include:
You may experience a shortness of breath and/or wheezing during normal activity or while at rest.
You may have the feeling that something is squeezing or sitting on your chest, making it hard to breathe.
Coughing up mucus
You may experience a change in the amount or color of mucus coughed up.
Viral or bacterial infections cause many flare-ups. But triggers range from pollution to stress — they can be different for everyone. Flare-ups often come on suddenly, so it helps to be prepared with a COPD plan. Partner with your doctor to create one. Remember, “toughing it out” is not a plan. It’s just tough. So be sure to tell your doctor how your COPD truly affects you.
How can I reduce the chances of a COPD flare-up?
Each flare-up further damages the lungs. So you want to do what you can to reduce them. Talk to your doctor about ways to avoid triggers that may lead to more symptoms or flare-ups. Here are some tips that can help:
Avoid smoke, or quit smoking if you currently smoke.
Get a flu shot and ask about the pneumonia vaccines. Your doctor may want you to have one or both of them.
Keep away from anyone who has the flu, cold or sore throat.
Avoid crowds during cold and flu season.
Try to avoid cold air. It can trigger spasms in the airways making it difficult to breathe.
Keep your home clean and free from excess dust.
Wash your hands often.
Take your medications as prescribed to get the benefit of the medicine. Do not change the dose on your own.
Everyone’s COPD is different. And COPD is a progressive disease, so your doctor may change your medicine(s) over time as your disease changes. This is true for chronic bronchitis treatment, emphysema treatment, or any combination of the lung diseases that make up COPD.
Many people with COPD take medicine daily to reduce symptoms. This is called maintenance treatment. In addition, people with COPD also have rescue inhalers for sudden symptoms. They each do different things and both types of medicines are needed to manage your COPD.
Along with your rescue inhaler, your doctor may put you on (images for illustration only):
1 medicine in a single inhaler
2 medicines given in a single or multiple inhalers
Multiple inhaler triple therapy
3 medicines in multiple inhalers
Making sure you are on the right therapy for your COPD can help you better manage your symptoms. That’s one more reason why it’s important to partner with your doctor and share how you’re really doing.
Rescue Inhalers vs Maintenance Treatments
Each of these medicines addresses a different COPD problem. Rescue, as the name implies, is for sudden breathing problems. Maintenance is something you take every day—to help prevent symptoms. They are both important.
- are short-acting COPD medicines that work quickly in case of sudden breathing problems.
- are sometimes referred to as “quick relief."
- relax airway muscles within minutes and are generally effective for about 4 to 6 hours.
- are long-acting COPD medicines that are taken daily to help prevent symptoms from occurring.
- include 1 (monotherapy), 2 (dual therapy), or 3 (triple therapy) COPD medicines delivered in 1 or more inhalers.
Finding a treatment plan that works for you and making healthy lifestyle choices are 2 ways you can take action to manage your COPD.
Building a COPD Treatment Plan
Be a true partner in your healthcare. Tell your doctor how you’re really doing to make sure you’re on the right medicine for you. Re-evaluate your plan based on your current COPD symptoms. Many people with COPD need to take a maintenance treatment every day to reduce or even prevent symptoms. This does not replace a rescue inhaler.
Do what you can every day to do something good for yourself. The list below may help you live better with COPD. Talk to your doctor about what’s appropriate for you.
- Exercise regularly
- Get plenty of rest
- Eat well
- Stay on treatment
- Have a positive mindset
- Stop smoking if you haven’t already, and avoid secondhand smoke
Breathing exercises for COPD
Pursed-Lip Breathing provides a quick and easy way to slow the pace of breathing, making each breath more effective. This allows air that was trapped in the lungs to move out and air to enter the lungs, helping you relax.
Breathe in slowly through your nose. It can be a normal breath or a deep one – whatever is comfortable for you.
The Purse Pose
Purse your lips together as if you’re blowing a kiss or putting out a candle.
Gently breathe out through your pursed lips. Nice and slowly.
Seasonal Tips for COPD
COPD & Winter
‘Tis the season to be COPD smart. Here are some tips that can help, but remember, you can use these tips all year long:
Wear a scarf
Cold dry air irritates your lungs and can trigger symptoms. Wearing a scarf lets the air warm up before you breathe it in.
This time of year, family and friends come to visit. Be sure they let you know if they’re not feeling well, because a simple cold for them could trigger serious symptoms for you. Tell guests they can help by washing their hands frequently to reduce the chances of getting sick before they see you.
Avoid fireplaces and wood burning stoves
They look beautiful. They feel cozy. That is, until they trigger COPD symptoms. The smoke from burning wood contains particle pollution and other harmful air pollutants.
Don’t let people smoke indoors. No matter how cold it is.
Be firm. It may be uncomfortable for them for a few minutes. But smoke in your home and your lungs is more than discomfort. It can have serious and long-lasting effects.
COPD & Spring
Got spring-cleaning fever? Take a fresh look at your routine with these tips:
Store-bought cleaners can have strong chemical fumes and/or scents that trigger COPD symptoms. Instead, try using natural products which may be less likely to cause reactions.
Many people find joy in clearing out clutter. For people with COPD, there’s another benefit—reducing dust-collecting surfaces. Dust can trigger COPD symptoms.
Carpets can harbor dust, dust mites, and dirt. Clean them well and regularly. Vacuum often, but remember, vacuuming stirs up dust as you clean. So, try to have someone else do it or wear a mask if necessary. Where possible, remove carpets and go with hard surface flooring instead.
Declare a “no-smoking” zone
Do not let anyone smoke indoors in your home. Secondhand smoke can trigger symptoms.
COPD & Summer
Here are tips to keep cool, but remember, you can use these tips all year long:
Plan your activities
Plan outdoor activities in the early morning or after sundown when it’s cooler. Also, make sure your indoor air temperature isn’t too hot. Find the free cooling center nearest you. Make plans in places you enjoy that have air-conditioning, like a mall or a museum.
The body loses water in hot weather from sweating. Drink fluids (without caffeine) to help replace water and avoid dehydration.
Listen to the forecast
It’s not just about heat; it’s about air quality, too. Local weather reports can let you know about high temperatures and smog or pollution levels.
Take a break
Taking short breaks during and between activities may help keep your energy up.
COPD & Fall
Be festive in the fall with these helpful tips but remember, you can use these tips all year long:
When you have COPD, you’re more likely to suffer complications or even hospitalization from the flu. Ideally, you don’t want to get the flu in the first place. Your best protection is to get a flu shot annually, whenever your doctor recommends it. The timing of the flu season differs each year. Also ask your doctor about the pneumonia vaccine which, if needed, can be done at any time throughout the year.
Don’t let leaves pile up
Damp piles of leaves are a breeding ground for mold spores. Breathing in mold can make breathing more difficult for those with chronic respiratory disease. Try to have someone rake leaves quickly after they fall. Or, if you rake them yourself, wear a mask.
Use flameless candles
Pumpkin, cranberry, evergreen, and other scented candles are very popular this time of year. However, fragrances and smoke created from these candles can be triggers. So decorate and set the mood with flameless candles.
Avoid large crowds
Try to stay away from large crowds during cold and flu season. It’s easy for viruses to spread in these situations.