Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a lung disorder that blocks your airways. This chronic condition can make it difficult for you to breathe.

It affects nearly 30 million people in the United States.

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

  • a 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 around 85 to 90 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.

Experts say that smoking increases your risk for bacterial and viral respiratory infections. In research from 2011, people with COPD were said to be particularly susceptible to these infections, especially pneumonia. When people with COPD stopped smoking, marked benefits were shown.

Quitting smoking can be difficult, but there are ways to help you achieve this goal, which include apps, personal coaches, and support groups.

A personal coach can help you identify behaviors or navigate circumstances that cause cravings. Changing your habits is just as important to successful quitting as not smoking.

Some people also find success with over-the-counter nicotine alternatives, like the patch or gum. These 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.

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

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

To combat this, it’s important to stay active. 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:

  • strengthened muscles
  • improved circulation
  • improved breathing
  • relief from joint discomfort
  • eased tension
  • increased stamina

Once you’ve gotten into a routine, you can 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. It’s okay to start out by doing 10- to 15-minute exercise sessions. If you can, work up to 30 to 40 minutes per session.

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 understand your disease state and decide on a treatment plan.

Gold staging

Gold staging is based on your FEV1 value, which is the amount of air you can force from your lungs in one second.

GOLD stage 1

The first stage is defined as mild COPD. Your forced lung function is at least 80 percent of what’s expected.

GOLD stage 2

Stage 2 means the disease has progressed to moderate COPD. Your forced lung function is 50 to 79 percent of what’s expected.

GOLD stage 3

Stage 3 is defined as severe COPD. Your forced lung function is 30 to 49 percent of what’s expected.

GOLD stage 4

This is the most severe stage of COPD. Your forced lung function is less than 30 percent of what’s expected.

A, B, C, or D score

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.

Role of early diagnosis

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.

If you’ve already stopped smoking and have limited your exposure to other harmful irritants, you’re on your way to reducing COPD complications and progression.

Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise can help boost your immune system and build up your endurance.

You may also find it helpful to make changes at home. 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.

Making a few modifications 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.