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Tips for Staying Healthy With Alpha-1

Medically Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on August 14, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can be hard to understand. You may feel short of breath often or have no symptoms at all with alpha-1. But whatever your situation, you can take steps at home and at work to feel your best.

These moves can protect your lungs from damage and may help you breathe easier.

1. Don't smoke.

"The most important thing in those with alpha-1 is to stop smoking," says Edward Eden, MD, of St. Luke's and Roosevelt Hospitals in New York City.

If you are a smoker, talk to your doctor about how to stop. If you've tried to quit before, keep trying. It's the best thing you can do for your health. It may take several tries to stop for good. Keep trying.

2. Avoid pollen, dust, fumes, and secondhand smoke.

One easy way is to wear a mask when irritants are flying. Slip on a mask when moving boxes in a warehouse or mowing the lawn. 

"Someone who sandblasts or paints for a living should be wearing a respirator mask," says Susan Metcalf, a nurse practitioner with Pulmonary Disease Specialists of Central Florida.

People with jobs that have them outside a lot, like mail carriers, can be exposed to pollen and air pollution. "If patients have a little bit of asthma mixed in with their emphysema," Eden says, "they should avoid triggers for their asthma attacks, such as pollen, dust, and ozone."

Before you head outside, check the Air Quality Index and plan your day accordingly. The index can change during the day, so check it often. When air quality is poor, plan your outdoor activities for the morning or when the air is cleaner, and try to avoid areas where traffic is heavy.

If you're driving in traffic on a hot day, keep your windows rolled up.

At home:

  • Never allow smoking indoors.
  • Dusting, vacuuming, and shaking out rugs stirs up dust. Ask or hire someone to do these chores for you.
  • Damp-mop floors instead of vacuuming or sweeping.
  • Use mattress and pillow covers, and always wash linens in hot water to kill dust mites.
  • If you have a pet, bathe it weekly and keep it out of the bedroom.
  • Use a dehumidifier to keep the humidity levels low and help prevent mold.
  • Install an air filtering system.

3. Avoid colds, flu, and bronchitis.

A simple cold can hurt your lungs when you have alpha-1. Prevention is your best defense. Wash your hands often, and carry hand sanitizer in case you can't wash your hands. Get a yearly flu shot, along with the pneumonia vaccine every 5 years.

Be germ-smart:

  • Shopping malls and movie theaters can be germ magnets. Go during off-hours, when crowds are smaller.
  • Visit with children when you know everyone is healthy. Take a rain check if someone comes down with a cold.
  • During cold and flu season, avoid busy airports and packed airplanes by driving to your destination instead of flying, if it's practical.
  • At the doctor's office or hospital, you can swab arm rests and door handles with an antibacterial wipe before touching them. Don't touch the magazines.

Call your doctor right away if you

  • Develop a fever
  • Have more coughing or shortness of breath
  • Have changes in the color or thickness of phlegm

It’s important to treat an infection early to prevent it from getting worse.

4. Get regular exercise.

Exercise can make a big difference in keeping your lungs healthy. "In general," says Metcalf, "you want to remain as active as you are able."

Upper-body exercises and walking or bike riding are great ways to maintain lung health.

If you're not active now, tell your doctor before you start a new exercise plan. Start off slowly, with even just a few minutes a day, and build intensity as your endurance and strength improve.

5. Watch your weight and your diet.

A balanced diet with plenty of fruits and veggies helps keep all of you healthy, including your lungs.

One way to lower blood pressure and lose weight is the DASH diet. Or cut out processed foods, says J. Michael Petway, MD, a lung expert in Cumming, GA. You'll eat much less sodium.

Protein is important for lung health. Tofu, beans, nuts, and Greek yogurt fit the bill. They also tend to cost less and are less fatty than red meat.

Eden advises getting plenty of vitamin D, which also helps lung health. Always talk to your doctor before taking a supplement.

6. Avoid alcohol.

Alpha-1 affects your liver as well as your lungs, so you are more likely to get liver damage than most people. Don't drink alcohol, or make it rare.

7. Stick to your treatment plan.

  • Take your prescription medications as directed. Don't skip doses just because you're feeling better.
  • See a lung doctor regularly.
  • Follow doctor's orders for lung and liver tests.
  • Think about using a pulse oximeter at home. It painlessly measures the oxygen in your blood, so you and your doctor can know when you may need a change in treatment.

Family and friends can help you keep track of your medicines or doctor's appointments. Don't be afraid to ask. 

8. Get the emotional support you need.

If you're feeling scared, sad, worried, or angry, talk to someone about it. Ask your doctor about counseling or support groups. It can also help to spend time with other people who have alpha-1; they understand what you're going through.

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES:

Edward Eden, MD, chief of pulmonary critical care and sleep medicine, St. Luke's and Roosevelt Hospitals; associate professor of clinical medicine, Columbia University.

Susan Metcalf, ARNP-C, Pulmonary Disease Specialists, Pennsylvania.

J. Michael Petway, MD, PC.

Alpha-1 Foundation.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

CDC.

KidsHealth From Nemours.

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