Tips for Improving Your Quality of Life With COPD

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on March 08, 2024
5 min read

COPD is a chronic lung disease with no cure. But you can take many steps to relieve your symptoms and improve your quality of life using a variety of COPD treatments. Learn what you can do to feel better and improve your health.

These are the main goals of COPD treatment:

  • Relieve your symptoms
  • Slow your decline in lung function
  • Improve your daily lung function
  • Decrease your number of acute episodes (called COPD exacerbations)
  • Improve your overall quality of life

In some cases, hospitalization is necessary to provide certain types of treatment and to monitor your care. You may need this during COPD exacerbations.

COPD and smoking are a deadly combination. If you only do one thing to manage your COPD, quit smoking. Smoking not only leads to COPD, but it speeds up the progress of the disease.

Quitting smoking can:

  • Curb the decline in lung function
  • Reduce symptoms of COPD
  • Slow the decline in lung function to a rate that's normal with aging
  • Improve the quality of life for anyone, with or without COPD

No matter how serious or mild your COPD, stopping smoking provides benefit. Do you need help quitting? Ask your doctor about nicotine replacement products and other medications which aid smoking cessation, as well as support groups and other techniques.

With COPD, you may benefit from a coordinated program of lifestyle changes to help you stay active and improve your overall health. This is sometimes called a pulmonary rehabilitation program. A team of specialists may provide nutrition advice, breathing exercises and other types of exercises for COPD. They also provide overall education about your disease and ways to manage it. And because infections like influenza,  pneumonia and COVID-19 can seriously worsen COPD, treatment should include vaccination for pneumococcal disease and yearly vaccinations for flu.

Medications cannot cure COPD. And they cannot reverse the damage caused by smoking. But medications can help you in a variety of ways. They may:

Your doctor may prescribe more than one type of medication. Here are the most common types used to treat COPD:

Bronchodilators. This class of medications helps widen airways. These medications may make breathing easier and reduce the number of episodes if the disease acutely worsens. Your doctor is likely to first prescribe an inhaled bronchodilator. To take it, you breathe in using a device such as a metered dose inhaler, dry powder inhaler, or nebulizer. Metered dose inhalers (MDIs) use a chemical to push medication out of the inhaler.

You may need to combine more than one bronchodilator or use a combination product for the best results.

Examples of bronchodilators used as COPD treatment include:

  • Anticholinergic bronchodilators block acetylcholine, a chemical "messenger" that makes airways constrict. They may help you breathe easier and lower the number of acute episodes you have. They may be short-acting (used 4 times a day) or long-acting (used once daily).
  • Short-acting beta-agonists is a COPD treatment you may use if you have symptoms every once in a while, such as while exercising. They are used as needed for treatment of symptoms. They may also prevent a full-fledged attack when you feel shortness of breath coming on. Long-acting beta-agonists are available for twice daily use. You may still need to use a short-acting beta-agonist as a "rescue" therapy to quickly control a sudden attack.
  • Methylxanthines may be helpful for people who have trouble with inhaled medications. That's because you can take them orally. However, this medication is used less often than in the past due to its side effects. Methylxanthines are tried in instances when, despite treatment optimization, symptoms still persist.

Corticosteroids. These medications may help reduce airway inflammation. Inhaled corticosteroids are mainly used in those whose symptoms are not well controlled with bronchodilators only. That's because they work less well for COPD than they do for other lung problems such as asthma.

Daliresp. This is a pill that's part of a new class of COPD treatment -- it's an inhibitor of an enzyme called phosphodiesterase type 4 (PDE-4). Daliresp prevents COPD flares in people whose condition is associated with chronic bronchitis. The drug is not intended for other types of COPD.

Antibiotics. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection in your respiratory tract, such as sinusitis, acute bronchitis, or pneumonia.

If you have severe COPD, you may have low levels of oxygen in your blood. This means your body doesn't get enough oxygen on its own. Your doctor may recommend oxygen treatment to protect your organs, enhance your sleep, improve your daily activity, and help you live longer.

Oxygen is often stored in a portable tank that you can take with you. You may receive the oxygen through a flexible nasal tube or face mask. Or you can buy an oxygen concentrator, which can extract oxygen from room air. Oxygen concentrators are cheaper than having compressed oxygen delivered.

COPD can be a complex and confusing condition. It’s not always easy to remember changes in symptoms, medication, and doctor visits. That’s why it can be a good idea to keep track of these things and compare them each day to a checklist. There are online templates that can help with this.

Here’s one example of a COPD action plan from the American Lung Association. It’s a good idea to fill the plan out with your doctor and update it on each visit.

These plans guide you on how to make assessments about:

  • When and how to take your medication
  • How well your treatment is working
  • When to call your health care provider
  • When to get emergency care
  • How you feel from day to day
  • Health changes to discuss with your doctor

Whatever plan you use, the important thing is to pay attention and check it each day, especially when symptoms worsen.

If you have severe COPD with significant lung damage, you may need surgery, especially if you have severe symptoms, can't control your COPD with medications, or have trouble breathing most of the time. Surgery may involve:

  • Bullectomy to remove enlarged air spaces that interfere with breathing. They sometimes form when walls of air sacs break.
  • Lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS) to remove sections of damaged lung tissue.
  • Lung transplant to replace a diseased lung with a healthy donor lung. This is only done in very severe cases of COPD.