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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.”

4. Avoid pollutants.

Like people with asthma and other lung conditions, COPD patients can be affected by things in the environment -- fumes, strong perfumes, pollen, dust, secondhand smoke, and construction sites. Dweik says these can exacerbate the disease, causing flare-ups and breathing problems.

Avoid bad air as much as possible. Using air filters in the house or air conditioning when allergens are prevalent can be helpful.

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