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How to Manage Worsening COPD

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 04, 2021

It may be years before your COPD starts affecting your everyday life. As your condition worsens, you may have a harder time carrying on with tasks and face more severe symptoms that affect you physically and mentally.

Here’s what you may expect as your disease gets worse, and some of the ways you can manage the changes.

Breathlessness

One of the first signs that your COPD has gotten worse may be that you’re often out of breath. It may happen when you tie your shoes, walk to your mailbox, or wash your hair. Make a note of what makes you gasp for air. You can look for ways to handle your tasks with less effort, such as:

  • Use a wheeled cart to move laundry, groceries, and other heavy objects.
  • Dry off after a shower or bath with a thick robe and skip the towels.
  • Pick up items off the floor or hard-to-reach places with a grabber or pair of tongs.
  • Wear loose clothing and shoes to make dressing easier.
  • Hold a small battery-operated fan near your face to help feel less breathless.

Tiredness

With COPD, taking breaths may use up a lot of your energy. That can make even simple chores and activities challenging. You’ll need to plan out how to get support or do things in a different way. Schedules and plans can be hard to keep. Continue to make them, but leave them open in case your symptoms get worse. Consider these tips to save your energy:

  • Take care of your most important tasks first, while you’re able.
  • Break up activities into smaller steps.
  • Put items in easy-to-reach places.
  • Practice breathing and relaxation exercises.
  • Sit while you shower, bathe, or prepare meals.
  • Consider asking family or friends to help with grocery shopping, housecleaning, and other tasks.
  • Take advantage of wheelchairs and other assistive services while shopping or traveling.

Weight Loss

You may skip meals because it’s hard to swallow foods or you’re out of breath when you eat. This can make it hard to get the nutrients you need and may leave you weak. Keep a watch on your weight. Your doctor or a dietitian can help advise you on the best ways to maintain your weight.

Soft, moister foods can be easier to swallow. Eat what you love, and you might end up eating more. Try these high-calorie snacks to keep the weight on:

  • Full-fat milk and yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Cakes
  • Milkshakes
  • Buttered vegetables
  • Cream on top of fruit

Anxiety and Depression

Living with a serious long-term condition often can be difficult emotionally and mentally. It’s important to get help if you feel depressed or overwhelmed. Good mental health can help you better face life with COPD that’s getting worse.

Talk to your loved ones or someone close to you. Simply confiding in someone may help you feel better. Let others know how they can support you. Offer concrete suggestions they can respond to, such as running errands for you.

Keep a journal. Writing down how you feel may help you process your emotions and give you new perspectives.

Join a support group. It can help to connect with people who understand what you’re going through. You can find groups that meet in person or online. Your local hospital, universities, and nonprofit groups may sponsor COPD-related seminars or events. You also can join groups through Facebook, Reddit, and other social media.

Go outside. Fresh air and light activities may help lift your moods. Hobbies like reading, art, and listening to music can help quiet your mind and ease your stress.

Infections

As COPD gets worse, your chances for infections like colds and flu go up. Some simple tips can help lower your risks:

  • Stay away from family and friends if they may be sick or are infectious.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Keep your hands out of your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Clean your breathing equipment often.
  • Get your flu and pneumonia vaccines.

Help for End-Stage COPD

If your condition reaches a point where you’re unable to take care of yourself, you may require full-time help. You can prepare for that by researching and writing down your plan for end-stage care. Share your wishes with your loved ones.

Palliative care is a type of care for serious illnesses that focuses on pain relief and issues that affect your quality of life. You can get palliative care at the hospital or at home. Your care team may include doctors, nurses, social workers, therapists, and other health professionals.

Hospice is a form of palliative care that starts when you are expected to live no longer than 6 months. It provides comfort care, but does not include treatments to cure your disease. You can get hospice care at home, in a nursing home, or at a long-term care facility.

It may help to talk to your care team and your loved ones now about how you want to be cared for if your COPD becomes very severe.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

National Center for Biotechnology Information: “Effect of COPD on symptoms, quality of life and prognosis in patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer,” “Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): What can help you to cope with COPD?”

COPD Foundation: “Stages of COPD.”

British Lung Foundation: “Caring for someone with a lung condition,” “Living with breathlessness,” “What are the physical signs in the last weeks or days?” “Keeping well in the cold: What you can do.”

Pulmonary Education and Research Foundation: “The Four Stages of COPD, Explained.”

National Jewish Health: “Avoiding Infections.”

American Lung Association: “Planning for the Future with COPD,” “COPD and Emotional Health.”

Nutrition Science Degree: “What Is The Difference Between A Nutritionist And A Dietitian?”

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