COPD is a progressive lung disease. If you’re at risk for COPD, you can take steps to lower your risk. The same steps can help people with COPD prevent exacerbations and slow disease progression.

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease that affects your airways, making it harder to breathe.

Experts estimate that at least 15 million U.S. adults have COPD. It’s also the fourth-leading cause of death in the country. COPD may significantly affect your overall quality of life by restricting everyday activities.

Despite these statistics, you can take steps to protect yourself from COPD complications. This largely depends on following your treatment plan and avoiding flare-ups. Talk with a doctor about the following preventive measures that may help.

The most common risk factor for COPD is smoking. Experts think cigarette smoking contributes to 85% to 90% of all cases. Most people with this lung disease are current or former smokers.

For this reason, you should avoid cigarette smoke and quit smoking right away if you do smoke.

However, some researchers believe that up to 30% of people with COPD have never smoked. This underscores the need to consider other risk factors as well. These include:

If you have any of the risk factors for COPD mentioned above, you may want to discuss them further with a doctor. You can also consider the following steps to help prevent the development of this lung disease.

1. Stop smoking (or do not start)

Since cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD, it’s important to quit. Smoking damages your lungs, leading to inflammation, air sac destruction, and clogging of the airways.

Talk with a doctor about how you can quit smoking. For various health reasons, it’s never a good idea to start smoking — but this is especially critical when it comes to COPD.

2. Avoid secondhand smoke

In addition to direct (or firsthand) cigarette smoking, exposure to secondhand smoke can also damage your airways and increase your risk of developing COPD.

Avoid others who smoke whenever you can. Never let anyone smoke in your home, vehicle, or workspace.

3. Avoid other pollutants

Cigarette smoke is the most common cause of COPD, but inhaling other pollutants and lung irritants may also increase your risk. These include dust, chemicals, and air pollution, as well as cooking at home without proper ventilation.

If exposure to fumes, dust, or chemicals is regular for you, be sure your workspace is well-ventilated. Also, consider wearing a proper face mask with a respirator. Avoid activities outdoors on days when air pollution is higher than usual.

4. Stay physically active

While no exercise program can prevent COPD, research shows that regular exercise can help your lung muscles work better while increasing your overall endurance. If you’re new to exercise, talk with a doctor about getting started.

5. Eat a healthy diet

According to a 2019 clinical review, a healthy diet rich in antioxidants from plant-based foods may protect against COPD development. This type of diet may also improve your lung function and overall COPD outlook.

There’s no cure for COPD, but treatments can help you manage this condition.

A doctor will likely recommend that you do what you can to prevent exacerbations so that you can avoid disease progression and complications.

This includes the COPD prevention methods mentioned above, as well as the following steps if you already have this lung disease.

What is a COPD exacerbation?

A COPD exacerbation, or flare-up, refers to times when your breathing may be worse than is typical for you. During such episodes, you may experience worsening symptoms, such as coughing, shortness of breath, and excess mucus production from the lungs.

COPD exacerbations may require additional treatment, so it’s important to call a doctor if your symptoms suddenly worsen. In more severe cases, you may require hospitalization for a few days or more.

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6. Stick to your treatment plan

One of the best ways to prevent exacerbations is to stick to your current treatment plan as recommended by a doctor. This may include a combination of the following:

  • inhaled medications, such as bronchodilators or corticosteroids
  • supplemental oxygen (also called oxygen therapy)
  • endobronchial valve treatments that help you exhale easier
  • a pulmonary rehabilitation program
  • oral antibiotics to treat active bacterial infections, as needed

A doctor can adjust your treatments if your COPD progresses.

7. Improve air quality at home

Improving indoor air quality at home is just as critical as avoiding fumes and chemicals in the air at work. As a rule of thumb, your home should always be smoke-free.

Make sure your home is well-ventilated before using any cleaners or other chemical-based products. Regular cleanings can also rid your home of lung irritants like dust, bacteria, and viruses.

If you have COPD, you may also consider testing for asbestos, lead, and mold.

8. Perform breathing exercises

COPD can make it harder to breathe in and out. Breathing exercises, such as those learned in a pulmonary rehabilitation program, can help.

A pulmonary rehabilitation specialist can help you find ways to become more aware of your breathing. They can also help you make the most of your breath to improve your ability to exercise and do your daily activities.

9. Maintain a moderate weight

Research suggests that body mass index (BMI) may predict overall COPD outlook.

According to one 2020 study, most participants with COPD were considered to have overweight or obesity, but those with a low BMI (underweight) were associated with more severe COPD.

More research is needed on possible connections between COPD and body weight. In the meantime, you may consider talking with a doctor about your current BMI and whether you need nutritional support to help you gain or lose weight.

10. Take vitamin supplements

Certain nutritional supplements can help fill vitamin gaps in your diet and support your body from medication side effects. The American Lung Association recommends talking with a doctor about a multivitamin and a calcium-vitamin D supplement.

11. Get vaccinated

In some cases, an underlying illness and subsequent lung infection may trigger a COPD exacerbation. To help prevent these types of exacerbations, you may consider talking with a doctor about vaccinations against certain respiratory infections.

These include:

12. Avoid others who are sick

In addition to getting up to date on your vaccinations, it’s important to avoid others who may be sick to help prevent disease transmission and subsequent infections. Try to avoid close contact with other people who may be ill, especially if they have respiratory infections.

COPD is a serious lung condition that may gradually worsen over time, especially without treatment. While there’s no cure, it’s possible to prevent both the development and progression of this lung disease. Talk with a doctor about the best options for your COPD plan.

Resources to help you manage COPD

If you do have COPD, the following resources can help you manage your condition and prepare for potential exacerbations:

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