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11 Breathing Tips for People With COPD

What to do for better breathing if you have COPD.

5. Stay healthy.

People with COPD have compromised lungs and can have a difficult time “shaking off” an infection, Dweik says. Common colds or the flu can sometimes progress to pneumonia more easily than for people without COPD.

Dweik recommends avoiding big crowds and people who are sick, calling a physician in the early stages of a cold or flu, and getting flu shots annually and pneumonia vaccinations about every five years.

6. Sleep well.

MacIntyre says a lot of people with COPD also have sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or hypoventilation (breathing that is too slow or shallow). People who have this may be helped by using masks for continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy.

Signs of sleep problems to watch out for include feeling unusually tired all day, falling asleep during the day, morning headaches, and excessive snoring.

7. Go for pulmonary rehabilitation.

Everyone with COPD -- and, in particular, people who use oxygen or have shortness of breath when doing daily activities -- can benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation.

“People will learn some specific things they can do to help breathing,” Dweik says. “It won’t change their lung function, but it is designed to help them cope and make the best of it.”

Emil Olson,a 62-year-old from Sweet Ridge, Colo., went through pulmonary rehab to build up strength for a lung replacement surgery. With only about 10% of his lung functioning, he went through rehab for three months in order to walk six minutes on a treadmill (a requirement for the transplant).

Aside from walking on the treadmill, Olson exercised on a stationary bike. He used light weights to build his upper back muscles, which helps with breathing. Therapists taught him how to eat right and offered tips like not bending over when lifting objects to keep from compressing the lungs.

“I don’t think anyone expected me to stay alive long enough to get a transplant, but I did,” he says. “It’s amazing how much good you get out of 30 to 45 minutes of really limited exercise.”

8. Do breathing exercises.

There are two main exercises that are practiced in rehab to help people with COPD improve their breathing.

The first is pursed-lip breathing. Some people with COPD have particular difficulty breathing out. When this occurs, air gets built up in the lungs and the lungs can’t expand as well, Dweik says.

Pursed-lip breathing helps regulate this problem. To perform this, sit comfortably and inhale deeply through the nose. Purse lips (as though whistling) and breathe out three times longer than the in breath, but don’t force the air out. This technique can be used when shortness of breath occurs to regulate breathing patterns.

A second exercise is diaphragm breathing. This technique helps strengthen the diaphragm muscle so people use less energy when breathing. To perform the exercise, lie on the back with knees bent, one hand on the upper chest and another resting on the abdomen. When inhaling and exhaling, keep the chest as still as possible and use the stomach to breathe. This should be practiced for five to 10 minutes three times daily.

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