Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) isn’t just one condition. It’s a family of diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis that interfere with your breathing.

In chronic bronchitis, mucus blocks your airway, making it harder to breathe. With emphysema, your body becomes less effective at exchanging carbon dioxide for fresh oxygen.

There are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to understanding and treating COPD, so managing this condition is best done with a comprehensive and coordinated effort. This is usually referred to as your care plan.

A COPD care plan is something you’ll develop with a doctor to outline your overall treatment strategy. This can include things such as:

  • an action plan outlining what symptoms to expect and how to manage them
  • what treatments will be prescribed to you and how you can keep up with them
  • planning for lifestyle changes to accommodate your condition
  • identifying and securing support and resources for your care

This article will explore what goes into a care plan for COPD, what yours might involve, and how it can help you keep your disease under control.

An action plan is a self-management tool that can help you and a doctor identify what symptoms you can expect on good (green) days, bad (yellow) days, and days when you might need medical assistance (red).

  • Green zone. Even on a good day with COPD, you’ll have to stick to certain lifestyle changes and medication plans. Your action plan in the green section will describe how you might feel on these days and remind you to do things such as exercising and taking your regular medications.
  • Yellow zone. You’ll need some extra help on these days. You may have a flare up with increased shortness of breath, coughing, or fatigue. Your action plan will guide you on how to deal with these symptoms, including offering options for special breathing techniques and rescue medications.
  • Red zone. Your attempts to control your COPD exacerbation aren’t enough to address your symptoms. You may be severely short of breath and unable to speak in full sentences or complete everyday tasks. Your action plan can help you or your caregivers recognize when it’s time to contact 911 or local emergency services.

How to make a COPD action plan

Creating your action plan begins with having a discussion with a doctor. You’ll talk about your specific symptoms, goals, and what type of treatment can best help you avoid flare ups.

Once you and a doctor decide on a care plan, you can create an action plan. You can organize symptoms by severity into green, yellow, and red zones and list appropriate treatments or actions for each stage.

Organizations across the world have designed templates to help you construct your action plan. Some examples include:

While the action plan is a helpful self-management tool, it’s only a small part of your overall COPD care plan.

COPD action plan: Key questions

WHAT is a COPD action plan?
A COPD action plan is a written plan that can help you know how to address different stages of COPD symptoms.

WHO should know about my COPD action plan?
You and a doctor should both know what’s in your action plan, but it’s also a good idea to involve close family members or caregivers who may need to help with your care.

WHERE should I keep my COPD action plan?
It’s a good idea to keep your action plan somewhere that you can see it easily, and where the people who help care for you can find it.

WHY is a COPD action plan important?
A COPD action plan can help you and your loved ones manage your condition to avoid flare ups and dangerous exacerbations.

HOW do I make my COPD action plan?
You should make your action plan with a doctor after reviewing your symptoms, your individual symptom tolerance, and treatment options.

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An action plan outlining your medication regimen and when to get additional treatment is an important part of managing your COPD, but it’s not everything. Your care plan also needs to include lifestyle and behavior changes.

Smoking cessation

Quitting smoking is perhaps the most important thing you can do to manage your COPD. Cigarette smoking is the top cause of COPD. About 15 percent of current smokers and almost 8 percent of former smokers develop COPD.

While there are many good treatments for COPD, they won’t be as effective if you don’t quit smoking.


You’ve heard the phrase “you are what you eat.” It’s important for everyone to eat a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet. For people with COPD, it’s particularly important.

The right nutrient mix can help you breathe better. Be sure you’re getting enough:

  • fiber
  • protein
  • water
  • fresh fruits and vegetables
  • whole grains and other complex carbohydrates

It’s also a good idea to limit things such as:

  • sodium
  • saturated fats
  • simple carbohydrates such as white breads and sugars


A healthy body is key to a strong pulmonary system. Your heart and lungs work together to move oxygen-rich blood through your body. Heart disease is a complication of COPD and can make it more difficult for you to manage your condition.

Regular exercise is a good idea overall, as are specialized breathing exercises. You can learn special tools to help manage your symptoms in a pulmonary rehabilitation or therapy program.

Avoiding infection

Respiratory infections can trigger COPD exacerbations that worsen your condition and make your lungs weaker. Take care to avoid people who are sick, and be sure to get any possible vaccinations. People with COPD should prioritize receiving vaccinations to protect them against things such as:

Breathing techniques

In addition to regular exercise to strengthen your heart and lungs, your care plan should also include some form of pulmonary therapy or rehabilitation. In these classes, you’ll learn breathing techniques such as pursed-lip breathing that can help when you find yourself short of breath. You’ll also get tips on getting the right nutrition and exercise for your condition.

Energy conservation techniques

Severe shortness of breath can make it difficult to carry out your daily activities, but keeping your independence is still important if you have COPD. A doctor should discuss with you, and include in your care plan, techniques that can help you make it through your day without wasting energy.

These techniques can help you do everyday tasks — such as putting away laundry or cooking dinner — in a way that’s coordinated with your breathing to help you get the job done without an exacerbation of your symptoms.

Home care

As your COPD progresses, you might find it more difficult to complete your daily tasks, even with the help of things such as energy conservation and breathing techniques. Home care can be a much-needed part of your care plan in the later stages of COPD. These services can involve household tasks or medical care, and either of these can help take the burden off of you and your household members.

Living arrangements

Sometimes, home help isn’t enough. In discussing your care plan with a doctor, make sure you’re open with your needs and honest about how well you’re coping at home.

You may find that your current living space makes it harder to manage your COPD. You might have difficulty managing stairs, or your home may have poor ventilation. Click here to learn about what you can do to help make your home COPD-ready.

If you regularly require more help or increased oxygen therapy, you may consider moving to a skilled nursing or assisted living facility. Knowing where you draw the line on living at home ahead of time can help you and your family plan and can take some of the stress out of the decision if your COPD were to suddenly become worse.

COPD is a progressive disease that affects basically every aspect of your life. Your physical abilities may decline in time, putting a strain on your mental and emotional health. Even your relationships with family and friends could become strained as you rely on help from others more.

Having a care plan can take some of the burden off you in terms of making decisions. Having a plan in place outlining treatments and what will happen when or if your condition gets worse can be comforting.

There are lots of ways you can get help and extra support with COPD, and you can even include these things in your care plan.

Emotional support

Anxiety and depression can be major complications of chronic illness. Your loss of physical strength and changes in your independence are a challenge.

In COPD especially, shortness of breath can increase your feelings of anxiety. You may also notice strained personal relationships as you rely on others more for support.

Be sure to include caring for your mental and emotional health in your care plan. It can also be a good idea to find resources to help your family and caregivers learn to cope with your disease.

Social networking

Sharing experiences can help people cope with chronic diseases such as COPD. These conditions can be isolating, and it can be difficult to go through changes that affect nearly every aspect of your life.

Talking through these changes with others who have experienced them can be particularly helpful. You can learn coping skills and new ways to support your condition, or you can just have someone to talk with who understands what you’re going through.

Whether it’s an in-person or online group, being a part of some form of social network can and should be included in your overall care plan for COPD. Examples of support include:


There are several types of therapy that can benefit you if you have COPD. This can include therapy for your emotional and mental well-being, as well as other forms of therapy such as:

  • nutrition therapy
  • pulmonary therapy
  • physical therapy
  • occupational therapy

A doctor should review your physical, emotional, and practical needs with you and include therapies to help you manage these challenges in your care plan.

Living with COPD involves a combination of complex medical care and lots of lifestyle changes that can quickly become overwhelming. A care plan is a guide that you can create with a doctor to address your medical, physical, mental, and practical needs as you navigate your condition.

If you don’t have a care plan to help you manage your COPD already, talk to a doctor about creating one.