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Dad First, COPD Second
Dad First, COPD Second

Elizabeth provides support, insight and guidance for caregivers.

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Handling Dad's "Out of Breath" Attacks

I recently joined the National Family Caregiver Association’s group on LinkedIn. I asked which topics they’d like covered in upcoming posts, and one of the members, Jacqueline, who connects caregivers with resources in Prince George’s County, Maryland, offered, “Any advice you have on how to help or what to do during an "out of breath" attack would be appreciated.”

This happens to my father a lot. He experiences a condition known as “dyspnea” - a Latin word meaning “shortness of breath.” Dyspnea is associated with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, thus, COPD patients experience it in varying degrees and as caretakers, we see and hear it first-hand.

My father can find himself “out of breath” from the simplest things: walking with his walker for an extended amount of time, during a heated discussion, and even during a sports game. Fuggetaboutit when the World Cup championships roll around. His out-of-breath attacks increase when the referee makes the wrong call. Even I start gasping for air.

The worst incident is while smoking. I know his shortness of breath is at a tipping point when he extinguishes that beloved cigarette so he can catch some oxygen molecules into his lungs. Nevertheless, don’t let my father fool you. He will save that bud for later because in our home, “nothing goes to waste.”

Usually, his episode is followed by an exacerbated cough. I sprint to his side to see whether or not I need to dial 911. For the most part, he overcomes an attack through coughing, which is almost always accompanied by an excretion of mucous build-up. If he is walking when this happens, he immediately stops to rest. I hand him his water bottle – which he always takes – and short sips help him regain his breath. If he is sedentary when dyspnea occurs, he tries to catch his breath by taking deep breaths through his mouth.

I watch. I listen. I make sure he doesn’t turn blue. I am there and aware. He overcomes.   

Whether your loved one is newly diagnosed or is experiencing more frequent out-of-breath attacks, you should consult with your primary physician and pulmonologist. There are breathing exercises that may help. To learn more, read this article on dyspnea and share it with your doctor to see what the best course of treatment is for your loved one with COPD.

It’s one breath at a time. For them and for us.


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About the Author

Elizabeth cares for her mother, a diabetic, and for her father, who suffers from COPD.