Coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath… What’s your first thought? I think many people might say asthma! These symptoms, along with—sometimes—coughing up sputum (known as mucus or phlegm) from the lungs, are also classic symptoms of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD—types of COPD include emphysema, chronic bronchitis,
Not one disease but an umbrella term for several lung diseases that cause some degree of “obstruction” in the lungs, COPD essentially means that even when a person is at their healthiest, their lungs still have damage, so the ability of the lungs to move air in and out is decreased in some way–the airways may become swollen, and the alveoli, or “air sacs” in the lungs may become stretched and be unable to help oxygen move efficiently from the lungs to the bloodstream, and carbon dioxide (the waste product created after our bodies use the oxygen our lungs have brought in) into the lungs to be exhaled from the body. The most common forms of COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis, most often linked to smoking, but also sometimes to air pollution. Other forms of COPD can be caused by genetics, such as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, repeated lung infections, or inhaling dust, specifically that containing silica, or even—rarely—inhaling cooking smoke frequently . While breathing tests can help diagnose COPD, and COPD can also be characterized by increases in symptoms, called “flares” or “exacerbations”, and similar medications may be taken by both people with asthma and COPD, it differs from asthma in that lung function does not always improve in response to medication, and symptoms will gradually worsen over time… which does not mean that you can’t live well with COPD!
How do you live well with COPD?
- If you smoke, quit! Quitting smoking will likely decrease the frequency of COPD exacerbations and help slow the progression of the disease. Stay away from those who are smoking. Stay away from other triggers of your COPD like wood smoke, perfume/cologne, chemical odours, pet dander, or changes in temperature, and take your doctor’s advice for what to do when you catch a cold or other virus.
- Exercise regularly. If you’re not physically active, or are having a lot of trouble breathing, your doctor may recommend you join a pulmonary rehabilitation program. This is a medically supervised exercise program for people with lung disease that will help you improve your physical fitness—which may also help how efficiently your lungs can work. And yes… Even though exercise may make your breathing feel worse in the short term, that’s still no reason to avoid it!
- Losing weight. If you are overweight, exercise and nutrition can help you lose weight and make breathing easier, since extra pounds can make breathing take even more energy.
- Take medication as prescribed. It’s not always easy to stick to regular medication schedules, but do your best. Inhalers with bronchodilators will help expand your airways, while those containing inhaled steroids will decrease any inflammation (swelling) in your lungs to help you breathe easier. Corticosteroids (prednisone or solumedrol) can be taken in pill form during exacerbations, if needed.
- If prescribed, use oxygen. Let’s be blunt here: Yes, people will notice you are wearing a nasal cannula or may notice a transtracheal oxygen line entering through your neck, and they will quite probably notice an oxygen tank or concentrator. But… YES, they also will notice—and be more concerned!—if you are having trouble breathing! Oxygen is a tool to stay healthy, it doesn’t say anything about you!
- Find support. You can still do everything you used to do, and want to do, living with COPD. Find people who will support you doing these things! A support group, whether in person or online, or just finding a buddy also living with COPD, might help you to learn and share tricks and tips that make living with COPD easier.
- Wear medical ID. If you have COPD and take prednisone regularly, have had surgery, or use oxygen, it is of special importance to wear a medical ID bracelet or necklace—if you can’t explain what is wrong during an exacerbation, or might have problems remembering critical information if you’re struggling to breathe, a simple bracelet or necklace can ease that stress and keep you safe!
What are your tips for living well with COPD? Share them with us in the comments!