How can I stop the progression of COPD?

The only proven way to prevent the progression of COPD is to remove the offending agent that caused the condition in the first place. In the vast majority of cases, it’s cigarette smoke. Once a person stops smoking, the loss of lung capacity slows down to the rate of somebody who does not smoke.

Can COPD symptoms improve?

Yes. There are a variety of medications and treatments that can greatly improve the symptoms of COPD. Medications for COPD include bronchodilators and anti-inflammatories. Other treatments include oxygen therapy, surgery, and lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, getting regular exercise, and eating a healthy diet.

Are there ways to prevent flare-ups?

Yes. The main preventable risk factors of COPD flare-ups are viral or bacterial respiratory infections. Common practices such as frequent hand washing, avoiding contact with people who are sick, and getting appropriate vaccinations against bacterial pneumonia can decrease the frequency and severity of COPD flare-ups.

What is pursed-lip breathing and how is it used to help manage COPD?

Pursed-lip breathing is a technique where a person exhales through tightly pressed lips and inhales through their nose. This increases back pressure in the airways and helps alleviate symptoms of airway obstruction. It can be an effective method to decrease shortness of breath in people with COPD.

Is it safe to travel with COPD?

For people with severe COPD who have low oxygen levels, air travel at over 6,000 feet can be dangerous. Lower oxygen levels in airplane cabins and the altitude can affect oxygen levels in the blood. This can cause stress on the heart, brain, and other organs.

People living with COPD should consult with their doctor before traveling by plane. Testing oxygen levels with an altitude simulation test can help determine if it’s safe to fly.

Is it safe to engage in physical activity with COPD? If not, how do I stay in shape and healthy?

In general, it’s safe to engage in most physical activities with COPD. However, before starting vigorous exercise, you should get evaluated by a doctor.

There are specific exercise programs — known as pulmonary rehabilitation programs — that are designed for people with COPD. These programs are supervised by respiratory therapists. They’re designed to increase the exercise capacity and improve the quality of life in people with COPD. A doctor has to prescribe enrollment in these programs.

What is the life expectancy for people with COPD?

Life expectancy varies greatly in people with COPD. It depends significantly on the severity of the person’s condition, their current smoking status, and nutrition. Other health conditions like heart disease and diabetes also have an effect on life expectancy.

How common is COPD? Are there support groups?

COPD affects approximately 5 percent of the U.S. population. It accounts for 120,000 deaths annually. There are support groups all over the United States. The American Lung Association publishes a list of chapters of the Better Breathers Club on its website.

I have a hard time getting enough rest at night. Do you have any tips on how to sleep better?

Good sleep hygiene is a key component of self-care for anyone with COPD or other chronic lung disease. Here are some easy tips:

  • maintain a regular sleep routine
  • don’t stay awake in bed for more than 5 to 10 minutes
  • don’t read or watch TV in bed
  • avoid caffeinated drinks, especially at night
  • keep your bedroom quiet and comfortable

What treatment options are available for managing COPD, other than lifestyle changes?

The most common pharmacologic treatments for COPD fall into two main categories: bronchodilators and anti-inflammatories.

Bronchodilators are inhaled medications that help relax the small muscles of the airways that can contract and obstruct air flow.

Anti-inflammatories are inhaled or oral medications that decrease airway inflammation that can cause airway obstruction or mucus secretion.

In a small subset of people with a rare, inherited form of COPD, a specific enzyme in the body is deficient or missing. Giving supplements of that enzyme intravenously can slow down the progression of COPD.

Oxygen therapy for people with advanced COPD and low blood oxygen levels can help to manage symptoms and improve quality of life — or even prolong it.


Dr. Saad is a board-certified pulmonologist and intensivist living and working in Pasadena, California.