Skip to content

    COPD Health Center

    Font Size

    11 Breathing Tips for People With COPD

    What to do for better breathing if you have COPD.
    By Tammy Worth
    WebMD Feature
    Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

    Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, affects more than 12 million American adults.

    The term COPD includes two types of lung conditions: emphysema and bronchitis.

    Many people diagnosed with COPD have both emphysema and bronchitis. Together, the two reduce the amount of oxygen exchange in the lungs and thicken the lining of the airways. COPD is progressive and causes shortness of breath, wheezing, and chronic cough -- a persistent, phlegm-producing cough.

    People with COPD can have varying abilities when it comes to breathing. Some may experience shortness of breath during moderate exercise. Others need oxygen just to walk across the room.

    There are things people with COPD can do to improve their breathing. And for the most part, things like exercise, pulmonary rehabilitation, and smoking cessation can be very helpful, even for those with little lung capacity.

    1. Stop smoking.

    Long-term exposure to environmental pollutants can cause COPD but the main culprit, particularly in the U.S., is smoking. By the time someone gets COPD, their lungs are already damaged, but if they stop smoking, they can reduce future harm.

    Neil MacIntyre, MD, a pulmonologist and professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., tells his patients it is critical that they stop smoking when they become short-winded.

    “The first thing you have to do to get out of a hole is stop digging,” he says.

    2. Take medication.

    It is important to take medication, and if there are problems, patients should talk with their doctors, MacIntyre says.

    Maintenance medications such as salmeterol and fluticasone don’t always start working immediately. It can take a week or two before a patient feels their breathing improve. This can be discouraging for some, but MacIntyre says not to give up.

    If there is no improvement after a couple of weeks, people should talk with their doctor to make sure they are using medications correctly. Many of the drugs used for COPD can be challenging to use properly because they come in specialized inhalers.

    3. Mind your weight.

    People who are very sick with COPD use so much energy to breathe that they can have problems gaining weight, says Raed Dweik, MD, director of the pulmonary vascular program at Cleveland Clinic. They often need to eat enough to gain weight.

    But if people are overweight, shedding excess pounds can improve their breathing. “It is two ends of the spectrum,” Dweik says. “For people who are overweight, it is like carrying something around that contributes to their shortness of breath.”

    1 | 2 | 3 | 4

    Today on WebMD

    man talking to his doctor
    Check your COPD risk.
    woman using inhaler
    What is the top cause of this condition?
    chest x-ray
    7 early warning signs.
    Senior couple stretching
    10 exercises for people With COPD.
    Bronchitis Overview
    Senior woman blowing dandelion
    Living With Copd
    human lung graphic
    Energy Boosting Foods
    red heart and ekg
    Living With Copd
    Senior couple stretching

    WebMD Special Sections