Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of lung disorders that block your airways. This chronic condition can make it difficult for you to breathe. It affects nearly 30 million people in the United States.

Approximately half of those people experience COPD symptoms but are unaware that they have the condition. Common symptoms include:

  • nagging cough
  • decreased ability to exercise
  • shortness of breath
  • frequent respiratory infections

Although COPD can’t be reversed, its symptoms can be treated. Learn how your lifestyle choices can affect your quality of life and your outlook.

Smoking is responsible for COPD in over 85 percent of cases. If your COPD diagnosis is the result of smoking cigarettes, the best thing you can do is to stop smoking. This will help slow the progression of your condition and help your body be more receptive to treatment.

Quitting smoking also decreases inflammation of your respiratory tract and improves your immune system. Studies have shown that nonsmokers with COPD are less likely to develop bacterial respiratory infections compared with smokers.

Quitting smoking can be difficult, but there are ways to help you achieve this goal. You may find it helpful to work with a smoking cessation coach to develop a plan tailored to your needs.

In addition to helping you curb nicotine addiction, your personal coach can help you identify behaviors or navigate circumstances that cause cravings. Changing your habits is just as important to successful cessation as not smoking.

Some people also find success with over-the-counter nicotine alternatives like the patch or gum. These alternatives can help you reduce your level of nicotine consumption and combat cravings or other symptoms of withdrawal. There are also prescription medications available that may help you quit smoking.

In addition to avoiding cigarette smoke, it’s also important to avoid any environmental factors that can irritate your lungs. These include pet hair and dander, dust, and air pollution.

It’s important to manage any allergies you have that cause breathing problems. Avoiding what you’re allergic to and taking the appropriate medications can decrease breathing difficulties.

Check out: 15 real and practical tips for quitting smoking »

Although exercise has been shown to improve the lives of people who have COPD, it will not cure or reverse your condition. Exercise can improve the way that you feel, breathe, and function.

Most people with COPD experience shortness of breath. This can make it difficult to perform day-to-day tasks or engage in physical activity. If you don’t exercise your body, your muscles will weaken. Your heart and lungs will become less tolerant to activity, which can make it harder to exercise.

To combat this, it’s important to stay active. You should take it slow until you’ve built up your strength, but make sure that you’re moving. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs can be useful for learning about exercises that can improve your tolerance to activity and increase your independence. Ask your doctor about programs in your area.

Before you start exercising, consult your doctor. They can help you develop an exercise plan suited to your needs. If you use oxygen, they can guide you on best practices for using oxygen while exercising. You may need to adjust your oxygen flow rate to accommodate your increased activity.

Recommended exercises often include:

  • walking
  • alternating sitting to standing repeatedly
  • using a stationary bike
  • using hand weights
  • learning breathing exercises

Benefits to exercise include:

  • strengthening your muscles
  • improving circulation
  • improving breathing
  • relieving joint discomfort
  • easing tension
  • increasing stamina

Once you’ve gotten into a routine, you should gradually increase your time and effort spent exercising. Doing a little more each day can help you build up your endurance and improve your quality of life.

A general goal is to exercise three to four days a week. You should start out doing 10- to 15-minute exercise sessions. If you can, work up to 30 to 40 minutes per session.

Learn more: COPD and exercise tips »

COPD is a chronic disease. While it’s possible to slow the progression of COPD, your symptoms will eventually worsen over time. COPD is classified into a variety of stages to help you and your doctor under your disease state and decide on a treatment plan.

GOLD stage 1: You have mild COPD. Your lung function is at least 80 percent of what’s expected.

GOLD stage 2: You have moderate COPD. Your lung function is 50 to 79 percent of what’s expected.

GOLD stage 3: You have severe COPD. Your lung function is 30 to 49 percent of what’s expected.

GOLD stage 4: You have very severe COPD. Your lung function is less than 30 percent of what’s expected.

Lung function isn’t the only aspect of COPD that’s important. Doctors now realize it’s necessary to understand how COPD flares and other symptoms like cough, breathlessness, and quality of sleep, affect daily life.

To assess this, an additional A, B, C, or D score is assigned to the GOLD stage. An “A” score is associated with the fewest symptoms and the fewest flares. A “D” score is tied to the most symptoms and the most flares.

Recommendations for treatment come from both the stage of lung function and a person’s severity of symptoms or letter grade.

Early diagnosis is key. Shortness of breath and an ongoing cough are the most common reasons people seek medical attention before the diagnosis of COPD. As the disease progresses, people notice worsening breathlessness, chest tightness, wheezing, and usually increased phlegm. In a later stage of COPD, people will experience all these symptoms along with loss of appetite, weight loss, and fatigue.

The sooner COPD is diagnosed, the better your outlook usually is. Once you receive your diagnosis, it’s important that you quit smoking and assess your lifestyle choices. If you continue to smoke, your condition will progress much quicker and shorten your life expectancy.

Keep reading: How to assess if your COPD treatment is working »

If you’ve already stopped smoking and have limited your exposure to other harmful irritants, you’re on your way to living the best life you can with COPD. Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise can help boost your immune system and build up your endurance.

You may also find it beneficial to ensure your living situation suits your needs. This may mean keeping items you use every day on a common table, or moving items from a top shelf to somewhere easier to access. These changes can help you avoid overexerting yourself and keep you from becoming out of breath.

Follow your doctor’s advice on treatment recommendations. If you’re feeling unwell or believe your symptoms are worse than before, let your doctor know. They can evaluate your current treatment plan and make adjustments as needed.