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11 Breathing Tips for People With COPD

What to do for better breathing if you have COPD.

9. Get active.

Though someone who can’t breathe well may not feel like exercising, it is one of the most important things people with COPD can do to improve their breathing and overall health.

Exercise doesn’t directly change a person’s lung function, but it improves muscle tone and cardiac function, MacIntyre says. This allows oxygen in the blood to be delivered more efficiently to the muscles and increases stamina.

“Patients with COPD have different degrees of ability,” Dweik says. “Even if they are progressed, they can still remain active -- the more the better -- but their activity has to be moderated by their capability.”

Dweik tells patients to be mindful of their limits and not push through when they can’t breathe. For people with “symptom-limited exercise” he recommends walking a couple of blocks until they get winded, stopping to rest, and walking more when they can. Eventually, a person may be able to walk farther with less shortness of breath.

10. Get oxygen therapy if your COPD is severe.

The one daily treatment that is proven to prolong life for people with severe COPD is oxygen, Dweik says. Studies have borne this out. Two large clinical trials found that people with severe COPD may live twice as long as patients with severe COPD who don’t use oxygen. 

Benefits aren’t proven for people with mild COPD.

Many patients don’t like it because it is inconvenient or looks unattractive, but when oxygen goes down, it strains and can damage the heart, Dweik says.

11. Learn about lung transplant surgery.

Four years ago, Olson had a right lung transplant. His odds of survival weren’t great -- he was extremely weak and just barely weighed enough to be viable for the operation -- but he chose to have the surgery anyway.

Three days after the transplant he was no longer using oxygen. By the time he left the hospital, he was walking a mile. He has no more symptoms of COPD and was around for the birth of his granddaughter. He has walked a 5k race and has plans to take part in three more this summer.

There are two main types of surgery performed on people with COPD. First is a lung transplant like Olson received. Second is lung volume reduction surgery where the damaged lung tissue is removed to make the lungs work more efficiently.

For Olson, the lung transplant was life-saving. But it is not for everyone. Dweik says it is a relatively rare surgery and only an option for certain people with COPD. There is a “transplant window - you can’t be too sick, but you have to be sick enough,” he says. A doctor can help determine if someone is eligible for surgery.

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