COPD Self-Care: Tips for Identifying It Early and Staying Healthy (2024)

Identifying COPD early is key to staying as healthy as possible, and self-care helps curb its disruption of your life.

In the beginning, the signs of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may be barely noticeable.

You might shrug off the frequent colds or blame your shortness of breath after everyday activities on aging or lack of exercise. By the time you realize you have a more serious problem, valuable time has already been lost.

That’s because COPD is progressive: It worsens over time, according to theNational Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Identifying it as soon as possible, however, can improve treatment options significantly.

There are also a variety of steps you can take to manage the disease, control its symptoms and keep living the lifestyle you want. Among them is connecting with other people who know what you’re going through.

It’s not hard to find a community of people living with COPD: About 16 million Americans over 18 have been diagnosed with the disease, the majority of them women, and health officials estimate that millions more have the condition but don’t know it. Stages range from mild, which might leave you short of breath when walking up a hill, to very severe, in which you struggle to breathe even when resting.

What Is COPD?

Technically, COPD encompasses a group of lung diseases that cause breathing difficulties by obstructing airflow and impairing the function of the airways. The two most common conditions within the COPD spectrum are chronic bronchitis and emphysema, although many people with COPD have a combination of both.

Chronic bronchitis is caused by constant irritation and inflammation in the lining of the airways, leading to excessive amounts of thick mucus that make it difficult to breathe. It often includes frequent coughing, especially in the morning, with the production of sputum or phlegm.

Emphysema is caused by damage to the walls between air sacs in the lungs, which normally stretch, inflating when you inhale and deflating when you exhale. The rupturing of air sac walls creates larger air pockets that trap air, causing the lungs to overfill and preventing oxygen from moving through the bloodstream. It results in shortness of breath, especially during physical activity.

Read More: COVID-19 and COPD: Protecting yourself and others

COPD Warning Signs: What to Watch For

Learning the symptoms is key to identifying early warning signs that can help you address the disorder at its most treatable stages. While none of these are a conclusive indicator, it’s wise to talk to your doctor if you have symptoms such as:

  • Shortness of breath after ordinary activities
  • Chronic coughing (smoker’s cough)
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Blue lips or fingernail beds
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Fatigue
  • Excess mucus
  • Wheezing

COPD Risk Factors

The biggest risk factor for COPD is smoking, which is linked to about 80 percent of deaths from the disease. Some 38 percent of the nearly 16 million adults diagnosed with COPD say they currently smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Read More: Air quality and your lungs: What is poor air quality and why does it matter?

Other risk factors include a history of childhood colds, smoke exposure from coal or wood-burning stoves, exposure to secondhand smoke and a history of asthma, according to the American Lung Association.

COPD Diagnosis: Spirometry and ABG Tests

COPD is diagnosed through a breathing test calledspirometry that measures how much air you can breathe into and out of your lungs as well as how quickly and easily you can do so. The test can be done in a doctor’s office or a lab and involves having a clip attached to your nose, then inhaling deeply and exhaling as rapidly as possible.

Other diagnostic tools include chest X-rays or CT scans, which may show the type of disease or its severity, and arterial blood gas tests or pulse oximetry, which measure oxygen and carbon dioxide levels to determine how well your lungs are working.

Self-Care Tips for COPD

If your doctor determines that you have COPD, there are a variety of things you can do to keep yourself as healthy as possible:

  • Stop smoking.Health experts say this is the single most important step most people with COPD can take.
  • Develop and follow ahealthy diet.Talk with your healthcare team to figure out what works best for you.
  • Exercise(in moderation).Ask your provider about exercises you can do safely and how much is good for you. Exercise can improve physical symptoms and emotional well-being.
  • Take care of youremotional health.Talk to your doctor about depression or anxiety. A therapist can help you develop coping strategies for stress. Try to connect with people who understand what you’re going through so you know you’re not alone.
  • Avoid overexertion.Pay attention to the Five P’s for managing daily activities: Pace yourself, plan ahead, position yourself upright when sitting or standing, prioritize your activities, pause for pursed lip breathing (learn more about this technique below).
  • Develophealthy sleep habits.These include getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night and consistently going to bed and getting up at the same time. Experts also recommend turning off electronic devices 30 minutes before bedtime, avoiding caffeine late in the day and not drinking alcohol before bedtime.
  • Use breathing exercises.Regular breathing exercises can help rid your body of stale air and increase your oxygen levels. Here are two:
    • Pursed lip breathing, which involves inhaling through your nose and exhaling for at least twice as long through pursed lips.
    • Belly breathing, which also involves inhaling through your nose. Pay attention to how your belly inflates as you breathe in, perhaps placing your hands lightly atop it. Then breathe out through your mouth for two to three times as long, paying attention to how your belly falls. Keep your neck and shoulders as loose and relaxed as possible.

Medical Treatment for COPD

COPD treatmentoptions, according to the CDC, include:

  • Prescription drugs:There’s no single best option and preferred treatments vary depending on the stage of the disease, so consult with your doctor about your symptoms and lifestyle to determine what will work best for you. Types of medicines used to treat COPD include:
    • Bronchodilators: These drugs relax muscles around airways. Some work in minutes but last only a few hours; others are long-acting and provide 12- to 24-hour relief.
    • Anti-inflammatories: Also called corticosteroids, they can be inhaled or taken orally.
    • Antibiotics: These are prescribed for flare-ups or exacerbations, periods when symptoms worsen significantly, often because of respiratory viruses and bacteria. They should be taken for their prescribed duration since stopping early can allow an infection to return or spur resistance to certain antibiotics.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation:This personalized treatment program helps improve your quality of life by managing your COPD symptoms. Recommended steps may include learning to breathe better, conserving your energy, and determining optimal diets and exercise routines.
  • Preventing and treating lung infections:Vaccines,including those for flu, pneumonia and COVID-19, are particularly important for people with COPD, since they face a higher risk of serious complications.
  • Supplemental oxygen:A variety of equipment is available to provide extra oxygen at home and elsewhere. What your doctor recommends will vary depending on the amount of oxygen your body needs, when you need it, your lifestyle and your insurance coverage.
  • Lung transplantation:In extreme cases, lung transplantation may be an option for individuals with severe, end-stage COPD when other treatments have become ineffective in managing the condition and when the person’s quality of life is significantly compromised.
COPD Self-Care: Tips for Identifying It Early and Staying Healthy (2024)
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