COPD is a progressive disease. In its later stages, it can significantly lower life expectancy. But if you have mild COPD, you can take steps to slow or even prevent this progression.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects an estimated 328 million people in the world. It can range from mild to very severe. It’s typically progressive, meaning it gets worse over time.

Although COPD is typically progressive, there are steps you can take to slow its progression. If you have mild COPD, it’s ideal to take these steps to keep your symptoms mild.

Keep reading to learn more about how to keep your mild COPD from progressing to more severe COPD.

According to the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD), “mild COPD” means you:

  • may cough a lot
  • may cough up mucus at times
  • feel slightly out of breath after strenuous activity

If you have COPD, your lungs don’t work as well, so you’re not able to exhale as fully as a person without COPD. The only way to truly tell whether you have COPD is to undergo spirometry testing.

Talk with a doctor about testing if you have any of the symptoms listed above. Also consult a doctor if you have a history of exposure to tobacco, pollution, or inhaled chemicals — all risk factors for COPD.

COPD grades and groups

You may hear a doctor use the terms “grade” and “group” to describe your COPD.

Doctors categorize COPD into four grades that reflect the severity of airflow obstruction in your lungs. Grade 1 means you have mild obstruction. Grade 4 means your obstruction is very severe.

Doctors also categorize people with COPD into four groups based on how their symptoms affect them and how often they experience exacerbations. If your doctor describes you as being in Group A, you likely have mild COPD.

Learn more about COPD grades and groups.

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The symptoms of COPD can slowly progress over time. Although it’s possible to treat many COPD symptoms, you can’t always reverse the damage that initially affected your lungs.

There’s not a definite timeline that says a person stays in one stage for a certain amount of time before progressing to another stage.

But if you receive a COPD diagnosis at an early age (earlier than 50) or continue to smoke after your diagnosis, your condition is more likely to progress faster.

COPD can shorten your life expectancy, but experts know more about life expectancy in the later stages of COPD. According to a 2020 study, there was no difference in life expectancy for people with mild COPD compared with those who didn’t have COPD.

But the same study suggests that people with moderate COPD may expect to reduce their life expectancy by 6.2 years. This underscores the importance of taking steps to keep COPD mild.

The most common cause of COPD is smoking cigarettes. But exposure to air pollution, dust, and chemical agents can also lead to COPD. Limiting your exposure to these irritants and inflammatory inhalants can help.

The following are some major steps you can take to slow the progression of COPD.

Stop smoking

Stopping smoking is one of the most impactful steps you can take if you want to slow mild COPD progression. Smoking damages your lung tissue, including the DNA in your cells. These changes trigger immune responses in your body that lead to COPD symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath.

Nicotine replacement therapies, like patches and gums, can help increase the likelihood you will successfully quit and stay quit for the long term.

Take your anti-COPD medications

Your medication regimen may include inhalers or oral medications that can improve your breathing. It’s important to use these medications as your doctor directs to help you maintain, or even improve, your quality of life.

Talk with a doctor if you notice the medications are not helping you manage your condition as well as they once did.

Stay up to date on your immunizations

Respiratory infections can increase your risk of COPD-related complications. Key immunizations include:

  • COVID-19 vaccine: The American Lung Association recommends staying up to date on your COVID-19 vaccine can help prevent serious respiratory illness.
  • Flu vaccine: Get your flu shot every year when it becomes available, usually in September or October.
  • Pneumococcal vaccine: If you have never received a pneumococcal vaccine (some people get one as a child), talk with a doctor about whether you should get this vaccine at your age. There are several types of pneumococcal vaccines.
  • Tdap vaccine: If you have never received the Tdap vaccine to protect against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough), consider getting it. Adults should get a booster about every 10 years.

You may wish to review your vaccine schedule with your doctor to determine whether other vaccines could keep you well.

Participate in pulmonary rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation is a medically supervised exercise program that can help you improve your breathing, especially while exercising.

Even if you have mild COPD, it can affect your breathing while exercising. In pulmonary rehabilitation, a pulmonary therapist can help you improve your breathing during physical activity.

The program may also provide counseling on living well with COPD as well as reducing anxiety and depression that can also accompany a COPD diagnosis.

Even mild COPD can affect how well your lungs exchange oxygen. It may restrict your daily activities, too.

If a doctor has diagnosed you with mild COPD, it’s important to take steps to manage your condition. Quitting smoking and making other lifestyle changes may prevent COPD from progressing.