Managing Your Symptoms

If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, it’s important to understand what kind of changes to expect and to learn strategies to help you cope with the disease. Though COPD can’t be cured, it can be effectively treated to reduce symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Physically, COPD affects one of the most basic and vital life functions: your ability to breathe. Some people find that they need to restrict daily activities, while others become unable to work. You may feel a sense of loss from being slowed down and prevented from doing things you once enjoyed. Sadness, anger, anxiety, and depression are normal feelings you may experience while adjusting to your new lifestyle. Emotional and lifestyle management of your COPD can be as important as the management of physical symptoms.

Symptom Management

The first step in taking control of COPD is learning how to manage your physical symptoms. There are a number of treatment options that your doctor may recommend. These include:

  • Medications: Bronchodilators relax the muscles around the airways; corticosteroids reduce swelling and mucus production, and antibiotics manage bacterial or viral infections that can cause flare-ups
  • Oxygen therapy: This treatment allows you to receive extra oxygen through nasal prongs or a mask at certain times of the day or all the time
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation: This can include medically supervised exercise and education to help you manage your disease and stay more active

Your doctor may instruct you to follow a combination of treatments and lifestyle changes, which undoubtedly will include quitting smoking. Don’t delay managing your symptoms. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports that the sooner COPD is diagnosed and treatment begins, the better chance you have of slowing the decline of your lung function.

Lifestyle Management

It takes more than just treating your physical symptoms to manage COPD. Making changes to your daily habits can also play a key role in decreasing your physical symptoms. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), lifestyle management should be implemented along with medical treatment, such as:

  • Quitting smoking: Quitting smoking is the best way to keep COPD from worsening. Cigarette smoke contains harmful toxins that irritate airways and damage lung tissue. When you give up smoking, your breathing and response to medication may noticeably improve. Your doctor can help you map out a quitting plan, which may include a smoking cessation program, medication, or counseling.
  • Managing diet: Being either overweight or underweight can affect the quality of your breathing. When you have COPD, breathing requires more energy. In fact, the muscles used to help you breathe can burn up to 10 times more calories than the muscles of someone without the condition, according to the Cleveland Clinic. If you’re overweight, shedding pounds can help reduce shortness of breath by decreasing pressure on the respiratory muscles and diaphragm. Eating smaller, more frequent meals that include fruit and vegetables and increasing physical activity can help to maintain optimal weight.
  • Staying active: Though you may be tempted to limit physical activities for fear of becoming short of breath, exercise is an important management tool for COPD. Regular exercise can help improve your lungs and heart, strengthen your muscles, and help you breathe easier. Starting slow is important. Before you begin, talk to your doctor about what kinds of activities are safe for you. Some techniques that can help make exercise more comfortable include focusing on breathing slowly, pursing your lips while breathing, and avoiding holding your breath while exercising.
  • Controlling environment: Certain environmental factors can exacerbate your symptoms. To minimize symptoms, avoid excessive air pollution, which increases respiratory-tract irritation, coughing, and chest tightness. Indoor fumes, such as second-hand cigarette smoke, are also respiratory irritants. Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, get regular flu vaccines, and avoid crowds to evade infections, which can worsen COPD symptoms.

Emotional Management

The adjustments you’ll need to make to manage your COPD may bring up difficult emotions that can lead to problems with sleep and intimacy. It’s important to give yourself time to work through your feelings and learn how to cope with them.

  • Deal with grief: An initial step of coming to terms with a chronic condition like COPD is going through a grieving period. A loss of health, functionality, and the ability to do certain activities must be grieved like any other loss. Allowing yourself to experience these feelings, even if they’re uncomfortable, will benefit not only your emotional health, but also your physical health and COPD symptoms.
  • Reduce anxiety: Stress and anxiety can make you feel short of breath and worsen your symptoms. The feeling of having shortness of breath can then lead to more anxiety and fear, causing you to breathe even faster. To help reduce anxiety, your doctor may recommend medication or psychotherapy. To manage stress and anxiety on your own, try practicing breathing exercises, reducing stressors that may trigger symptoms, and changing your thought patterns.
  • Address depression: Feeling upset and disappointed about the difficult losses you’ve suffered is understandable. However, if you’re crying frequently or feeling sad and hopeless more days than not for several weeks in a row, talk to your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe antidepressants or recommend individual or family therapy to help you and your loved ones understand and better adjust to your illness.
  • Get better sleep: Many factors of COPD can upset your sleep: emotional problems, having to sleep more upright to help you breathe, and side effects of certain medications. Try some simple steps to help decrease your COPD-related sleeping problems. Keep regular bedtime and wakeup hours. Get up and do something relaxing, like reading a magazine when you can’t sleep. Avoid napping during the day, and don’t do anything active or stimulating within two hours of bedtime.

Learning to live with a disease as serious as COPD is a difficult process. It requires time and patience to make the necessary adjustments in your routine and get used to new ways of doing things. But taking the right steps to manage your symptoms, lifestyle, and emotions can lead to a more active and satisfying life.