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COPD Health Center

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Living With COPD

COPD presents 13 million Americans with new challenges and opportunities for better health.

The Many Challenges of Living With COPD

Since diagnosis, Hannigan's life has changed in many ways. "Everything takes you longer, you can't keep up," she says. "It's a huge effort and you become very short of breath just doing the basics -- taking a shower, getting dressed, trying to get out to do what you have to do. By the time you're ready to go, you don't want to do it. A lot of people just give up."

Reilly agrees. "This disease is insidiously progressive," he says. "It gradually curtails people's physical activity. Being out of breath is a miserable sensation, so people avoid the activities that make them out of breath." Gradually, they become homebound or less willing to travel, he says, experiencing a major impact on their quality of life.

For Hannigan, some limitations were imposed by her doctor, who told her to stop working when she was just 39 - an order she only partly followed. Now on disability, Hannigan volunteers for COPD International 10 to 12 hours a day. In 2002, she became one of the founding members of this nonprofit organization, which is dedicated to providing information and support to people with COPD and others affected by the disease.

Through her own personal experience and that of others living with COPD, Hannigan has seen how the invisibility factor adds insult to injury. "Sick lungs don't show," she says. Reilly says that people can seem perfectly fine while at rest, but they run into trouble quickly when they become more active. "Other people don't understand how sick they really are."

But understanding this is critical, especially since family members need to stay alert to potential complications. If a loved one gets sick with a cold, cough, or fever, it's important to intervene early, says Reilly, particularly if they have severe COPD. "Don't wait for a few days, as you would with someone who is generally healthy." Lung infections can quickly spell trouble for someone with COPD.

Managing COPD With Exercise and Diet

To manage the disease, the best step to take -- hands-down -- is to quit smoking.

"This is the one intervention that has clearly been shown to influence the natural course of the disease," says Reilly.

"In the short term, people feel better almost immediately," adds Edelman. "In the long term, their rate of decline in lung function also slows. It literally adds years to their lives."

Pulmonary rehabilitation is also often a big part of the treatment plan for people living with COPD. A wide variety of health care professionals - such as doctors, respiratory therapists, registered dietitians, or nurses -- can provide counseling about nutrition, information and resources for disease management, and exercise guidelines, for example.

Diet and exercise are essential to successful management of COPD.