Managing Your Symptoms

If you’ve been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it’s important to learn about the changes you can expect and strategies to help you cope with the disease. COPD isn’t curable, but you can take steps reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

COPD affects your ability to breathe. Some people with COPD find they need to restrict their daily activities, and some become unable to work or exercise. If your COPD prevents you from doing things you once enjoyed, you may feel a sense of loss. While you adjust to your new lifestyle, it’s common to feel:

  • sadness
  • anger
  • frustration
  • anxiety
  • depression

Managing the social and emotional aspects of your COPD can be just as important as managing your physical symptoms. Learn how to take control of your physical symptoms, lifestyle, and emotions.

Managing physical symptoms

The first step in taking control is learning how to manage your physical symptoms. Your doctor may recommend treatment options, including the following:

  • Bronchodilators are medications that relax the muscles around your airways.
  • Corticosteroids reduce swelling of the tissues that line the airways and mucus production.
  • Antibiotics fight bacterial or viral infections that can cause flare-ups.
  • Oxygen therapy allows you to receive extra oxygen through nasal prongs or a mask. You may wear the nasal prongs or mask at certain times of the day or all of the time.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation often includes medically supervised exercise and education to help you manage your COPD and stay active.

Don’t delay managing your symptoms. The sooner your doctor diagnoses COPD and the sooner the treatment begins, the better your outlook. Following your prescribed treatment plan can help you slow the decline of your lung function.

Making lifestyle changes

In addition to offering medications, oxygen therapy, or pulmonary rehabilitation, your doctor will probably recommend lifestyle changes. Making these changes to your daily habits can play a key role in decreasing your physical symptoms:

Quit smoking

If you smoke, quitting is the best way to keep your COPD from getting worse. Cigarette smoke contains harmful toxins that irritate your airways and damage your lung tissues. When you give up smoking, your breathing and response to medication may noticeably improve.

Your doctor can help you map out a plan. They may recommend a smoking cessation program, medication, or counseling.

Eat a nutritious diet

Being 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, reports the Cleveland Clinic. Especially if you’re underweight, it’s important to get the calories you need to support your health.

If you’re overweight, losing weight can help reduce your shortness of breath by decreasing the pressure on your respiratory muscles and diaphragm. Eating smaller meals and increasing physical activity may help you maintain a healthier weight.

Stay active

You may be tempted to limit your physical activities to avoid becoming short of breath, but exercise is an important management tool for COPD. Regular exercise can help strengthen your lungs, heart, and muscles. This can help you breathe easier.

Starting slow is important. Before you begin a new activity or exercise routine, talk to your doctor. Ask them what kinds of activities are safe for you. Some techniques may make exercise more comfortable for you. For example, focus on breathing slowly, purse your lips while breathing, and avoid holding your breath while exercising.

Maintain a safe environment

Certain environmental factors can make your symptoms worse. Avoid excessive air pollution to minimize your symptoms. Air pollution increases respiratory tract irritation, coughing, and chest tightness. Indoor fumes, such as secondhand cigarette smoke, also irritate your airways. Take steps to reduce or avoid fumes in your home and workplace.

You should also take steps to avoid infectious diseases, such as the flu and common cold. Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, get regular flu vaccines, and avoid crowds to limit your risk of infections. Getting sick can worsen your COPD symptoms.

Emotional management

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

Face your grief

If your doctor diagnoses you with a chronic condition such as COPD, it’s normal to go through a grieving period due to a loss of health, functionality, and the ability to do certain activities. Allow yourself to experience these feelings, even if they’re uncomfortable. This can benefit your emotional and physical health.

Reduce stress and anxiety

Stress and anxiety can leave you feeling short of breath. In turn, shortness of breath can lead to more anxiety and fear.

Your doctor may recommend medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both to reduce stress and anxiety. You can also take steps to manage stress and anxiety by adopting healthy lifestyle habits. For example, practice meditative breathing exercises, avoid stressors that upset you, and make time for activities you enjoy.

Address depression

Some people may feel upset or frustrated about changes in their life following a COPD diagnosis. This is normal. However, talk to your doctor if you frequently cry or feel regularly sad and hopeless for several weeks in a row. You may be experiencing depression.

Your doctor may prescribe lifestyle changes, medications, or therapy to treat your symptoms. Individual or family therapy may help you and your loved ones understand and adjust to your diagnosis.

Get enough sleep

Many factors related to COPD can disrupt your sleep, including:

  • stress, anxiety, or other emotional issues
  • having to sleep in a more upright position to help you breathe
  • side effects of certain medications

Take simple steps to help decrease COPD-related sleeping problems. Keep a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Rather than lying awake in bed, get up and do something relaxing when you can’t sleep. For example, read a magazine or book. Avoid napping during the day, staring at brightly lit screens at night, or doing anything too active or stimulating within two hours of bedtime.

The takeaway

Learning to live with a disease as serious as COPD can be a difficult process. It requires time and patience to make the necessary adjustments to your routine.

Taking steps to manage your symptoms, lifestyle, and emotions can help you lead a more active and satisfying life. Follow your doctor’s prescribed treatment plan to manage your physical symptoms. You should:

  • quit smoking if you smoke
  • eat a nutritious diet
  • get regular exercise
  • avoid pollutants and exposure to infectious diseases
  • take steps to address your emotional needs