Simple steps such as getting an annual flu shot and taking a daily walk can help the millions of people who live with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
COPD refers to progressive lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema that block airflow and make it increasingly harder to breathe. More than 12 million people have COPD, but this number may actually be as high as 24 million because many people don’t know they have the condition, according to the American Lung Association.
Here are seven expert-approved steps to manage breathlessness and other symptoms and to reduce the risk of sudden flare-ups, known as exacerbations.
1. Get an accurate diagnosis
“People with COPD are way under-diagnosed,” says Dr. Stephen Rennard, a pulmonary specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. “If you have a family or personal history of lung disease, shortness of breath or cough, ask your doctor about a spirometry test,” he says.
This simple lung function test measures the amount of air that you can inhale and exhale, and also measures how fast you can exhale. “It can confirm a COPD diagnosis, and help stage your lung disease,” Rennard says.
2. Kick the smoking habit for good
“If you are a smoker with COPD, you have to stop smoking,” says Dr. Neil Schachter, medical director of the respiratory care department of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. Smoking may not be the cause of every case of COPD, but it will make it get worse faster, he says. Today, lots of tools are available to help smokers quit, including nicotine replacement methods such as patches and lozenges, medications, group therapy, hypnosis and acupuncture.
3. Maintain a healthy body weight
“If you had to carry a 10-pound suitcase around with you, you would get short of breath sooner,” says Dr. Barry Make, co-director of the COPD program at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colo. “Losing 10 pounds makes it easier to do things if you are overweight.”
People with advanced COPD may be underweight, and may need nutritional support and strength training to help improve their overall condition, he says.
4. Get a flu shot
“COPD is driven by exacerbations, and a chest cold or infection can trigger exacerbations,” Schachter says. “If you have COPD, the best prevention is to get an annual flu shot, and a pneumonia shot every five to 10 years for people under 65.” The ideal time for a flu vaccine is in late September or October.
5. Be active
“Exercise will not grow you a new set of lungs or improve your lung function, but it does improve your cardiovascular fitness and this allows you to do more if you have COPD,” Schachter says. Build up to 30 to 60 minutes of brisk walking each day. Pulmonary rehabilitation—which includes exercise, breathing retraining, nutrition counseling and other supportive care measures—also may help.
6. Clean house
Dust, fumes, germs, animal dander and other irritants can aggravate COPD. “Get rid of carpets, drapes . . . and the like to make your home as dust- and antigen-free as possible,” Schachter says.
7. Recognize the warning signs of exacerbation
“Recognize a worsening of your underlying COPD symptoms,” Make says. “This means more coughing, more phlegm, more yellow phlegm, more shortness of breath, feeling more fatigued and not being able to do as much as before.” If your symptoms worsen, he adds, “Check in with your physician to see what else you can do to treat your COPD.”