What’s the Prognosis for COPD?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on April 21, 2023
4 min read

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you might be wondering what comes next. COPD is a chronic disease, which means you’ll have some symptoms for the rest of your life. It usually worsens slowly and in time can make it harder to breathe and do your usual activities. Talking with your doctor is the best way to understand what to expect.

But no matter how advanced your COPD is, there’s a lot you can do to feel better and live longer. Here’s what can help.

Your first step is to make sure you understand which stage of COPD you have. Ask your doctor about your diagnosis and what that may mean for your health now in the future. There are four stages of COPD:

Stage 1, which is early (or mild) COPD. Many people with stage 1 don’t even realize they have COPD. You might notice you’re coughing more than usual and/or making more mucus. Your doctor will recommend you quit smoking if you currently smoke, and make other lifestyle changes to improve your breathing now and later down the line.

Stage 2 is also considered mild COPD. You might have symptoms like a chronic cough, mucus, and shortness of breath. In addition to lifestyle changes and breathing exercises, your doctor might recommend you use certain medications to improve your breathing and lung function.

Stage 3 is severe COPD. Your lung function won’t be as good as before, and symptoms like coughing and breathing trouble will be more consistent and severe. Your doctor will recommend you use medications and possibly oxygen therapy to manage your COPD.

Stage 4 is very severe COPD. You’ll likely have breathing trouble even from a little activity. When your symptoms flare, you may have dangerously low oxygen levels and need to go to the hospital. Your doctor may recommend surgery to remove part of your lung(s), and if necessarily, a lung transplant.

Keep in mind that every person with COPD is different. Two people can have the same stage of COPD, but their symptoms may not worsen at the same speed. Some of that has to do with genetics and past habits, like how fit you are and whether you smoked. But a lot of it depends on what you do now and in the future.

It’s important to start treatment as soon as you’re diagnosed and stick with it. Treatment can help you breathe easier and may help prevent COPD from getting worse.

Along with your COPD medications, your doctor may recommend:

Quit smoking. If you smoke, this should be a top priority. Even if you’ve tried before, don’t give up. Ask your doctor what could help you kick the habit for good, such as nicotine replacement and support groups or quit-smoking programs. You should also avoid other people’s tobacco smoke and other things that can irritate your lungs.

Vaccinations. These include getting a flu vaccine every year, and stay up to date with your COVID-19 boosters and pneumococcal vaccines. Your doctor can let you know what vaccines you need to get, and when.

Pulmonary rehabilitation. This is a program that teaches you breathing techniques and other ways to manage your condition. It may also teach you how to exercise or quit smoking. Pulmonary rehabilitation can make it easier for you to stay active and make you less likely to be hospitalized for COPD. It’s an outpatient program, which means you’ll live at home during pulmonary rehab.

Supplemental oxygen. COPD can reduce the amount of oxygen in your blood. You may need to use a machine to get enough oxygen to stay healthy.

Lung surgery, such as lung volume reduction surgery or a lung transplant, may be something your doctor considers if other treatments haven’t helped you and if you’re healthy enough for the operation.

The closer you follow your treatment plan, the better you’ll be able to manage your COPD symptoms.

If you have COPD, these lifestyle habits are especially important. Keeping a healthy weight and staying active and strong makes it easier to breathe. And a balanced diet gives your body nutrients it needs to fight infection and protect your lungs.

Your doctor may recommend that you meet with a dietitian to learn more about nutrition and how to reach a healthy weight. They may also recommend pulmonary rehabilitation and/or meeting with a physical therapist to learn how to exercise safely and comfortably.

Having a chronic condition can take a toll on your emotions. Many people with COPD feel sad and anxious about it at some point. It’s important to get support. Talk with your friends and family, as well as your health care team. Let them know if you are feeling down or anxious. Your doctor may refer you to social workers, counselors, or psychiatrists who can help you manage the way you think about your condition, which can help you feel better.

Support groups are another resource. Connecting with others who have COPD, can help you feel less alone and may give you new ideas about living with COPD. The American Lung Association offers in-person and virtual support groups and a help line that has resources for people with COPD.

Palliative care is not just about end-of-life care. It’s for anyone with a serious illness, including COPD, at any stage.

Along with your regular COPD treatment, palliative care includes your mental health and any emotional, social, or spiritual issues that are on your mind. For instance, it might address anxiety, since untreated anxiety can make it harder to breathe. You can talk to your doctor about including palliative care in your treatment plan.