Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disorder that can leave people breathless, fatigued, and struggling to breathe well. If you have COPD, you may sometimes have great difficulty catching your breath after walking or exercise. You may also find that you are breathless just sitting or relaxing.

The medical term for shortness of breath is dyspnea. Dyspnea occurs in COPD because your lungs become damaged, which prevents them from working as they are designed.

COPD is a group of lung disorders. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two main conditions included in this category. These conditions attack your lungs in different ways.


Emphysema destroys the walls between the air sacs in your lungs. This creates larger but fewer air sacs. The total surface area for gas exchange therefore becomes smaller. The lungs also have trouble supplying oxygen to the tissues of the body and getting rid of carbon dioxide.

This damage also reduces the amount of air your lungs can hold and move. As a result, you may not have the lung capacity to do normal tasks. This will cause you to grow tired and breathless quickly.


Bronchitis inflames and irritates the lining of your airways. Over time, chronic bronchitis causes the lining to grow thick and inflexible. When your airways can’t properly clear themselves, excess mucus will become a problem. Eventually your airways will become very rigid and clogged by mucus. This makes breathing difficult. You may find that you’re out of breath much faster than normal. You may also feel tired more easily.

There are a number of ways to measure breathlessness. Many doctors use a system called the Modified Medical Research Council Dyspnea Scale (MMRC). Other scales include the baseline dyspnea index (BDI) and the oxygen cost diagram (OCD).

According to a study in Annals of Thoracic Medicine, the MMRC is the most common scale because it is simple, easy to use, and a valid measurement of dyspnea in COPD.

To use the MMRC scale, you choose one of five statements to describe your breathlessness:

  1. “I only get breathless with strenuous exercise.”
  2. “I get short of breath when hurrying on the level or walking up a slight hill.”
  3. “I walk slower than people of the same age on the level because of breathlessness or have to stop for breath when walking at my own pace on the level.”
  4. “I stop for breath after walking about 100 yards or after a few minutes on the level.”
  5. “I am too breathless to leave the house” or “I am breathless when dressing.”

Doctors can use your answer to determine certain treatments and predict survival. When used in combination with a FEV1 lung function test, your doctor can also diagnose the severity of your breathing problem.

COPD has no cure. Medicine and treatment can slow the progression and prevent damage, but it’s not possible to stop COPD. Treatment also can’t reverse the damage the disease causes to your lungs and airways. However, you may be able to maintain much of your regular activity.

Here are a few smart strategies that can help you cope with breathlessness and fatigue.


Physical activity may leave you breathless. To avoid it, you may be avoiding any exercise. However, exercise can help increase your stamina and reduce episodes of breathlessness. At the same time, you also have to take care not to overdo it. Work with your doctor to find a workout plan that is safe for your fitness level and one that won’t make your condition worse.

Practice smart breathing

If you have COPD, your doctors may refer you to a respiratory therapist. They can teach you to preserve your breath when you’re physically active. They can also teach you exercises that will help you quickly regain your breath when you find yourself breathless.

Quit smoking

Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. If you smoke, quitting can help ease your symptoms of COPD. Even if you’ve tried to stop smoking before and failed, you should keep trying. Your doctor can help you find a smoking cessation plan that works for you. Many smokers aren’t successful the first few times they try to quit, but don’t let that stop you. You’ll have a longer, healthier life if you quit.

Breathe better air

Along with cigarette smoke, other air pollutants can irritate your lungs and leave you breathless. Try to avoid car exhaust, paint fumes, and even cleaning supplies.

Though COPD won’t go away, you can take steps to control your breathlessness. Use the tips above to prevent dyspnea, slow the progression of your COPD, and preserve your lung function. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor to get the treatment you need.