Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on March 17, 2022
In chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), two lung diseases make breathing more difficult. Chronic bronchitis inflames and narrows airways (bronchi) and makes phlegm, while emphysema destroys parts of the lungs. If you smoke, quitting smoking can prevent more damage to your lungs. Even secondhand smoke can worsen COPD, so try avoiding it. For help with quitting smoking or avoiding secondhand smoke, talk to your doctor.
Your doctor may prescribe bronchodilators to help relax the muscles around your airways, making breathing easier. Short-acting bronchodilators provide brief relief fast, while long-acting bronchodilators can relieve constriction for a long time and are often used overnight. Bronchodilators are usually taken as an inhaled medication.
Corticosteroids, also called steroids, help reduce mucus production and inflammation in your lungs, making breathing easier. Most people with COPD take corticosteroids by inhaler, but sometimes they are taken in pill form. You may need to boost your calcium and vitamin D intake if you take steroids long term, so talk with your doctor about whether you'll need supplements or a change in your diet.
If you have COPD, you're at higher risk for complications from infections like the flu, pneumonia, and COVID-19. You’ll want to do all you can to reduce your risk of illness. You should get vaccinated against seasonal flu every year and receive a pneumococcal (pneumonia) vaccine with a booster shot as needed. And you should get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Infections can aggravate your COPD. (Here, pneumonia-causing bacteria are seen in blue on the lung’s air sacs.) If you do get a bacterial infection, your doctor will recommend antibiotics. Always finish the entire course of antibiotics, even if you start to feel better earlier. If you stop taking an antibiotic too soon, the bacteria could become antibiotic-resistant, making it harder to treat your infection.
What you eat, and how much, can affect how well you breathe. For example, having a really full stomach can make it feel harder to breathe. To keep from feeling stuffed, try having four to six small meals a day instead of three large meals. In general, eat a nutritious, balanced diet, and be physically active to help your body stay strong.
Your lungs are vital for getting the oxygen you need, but COPD reduces lung function. In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe supplemental oxygen. In addition to helping you with normal body functions, it can help increase your stamina and improve your sleep.
In rare cases of severe COPD that doesn’t improve with medication, your doctor may suggest lung surgery. While not right for everyone, a procedure like lung volume reduction surgery can improve lung capacity and your ability to breathe. With this surgery, some of the most diseased lung tissue is removed, leaving the healthiest part of the lung to perform better. Lung transplant surgery is another option in other severe cases.
Pulmonary rehabilitation uses exercise, disease management, nutrition, and psychosocial counseling to help you feel better and stay active. You’ll learn techniques for staying fit and managing shortness of breath, so you can improve your quality of life, decrease the amount of time you spend in the hospital, and improve your ability to exercise.
Having COPD can leave you feeling sad, frustrated, and depressed -- all of which can make it hard to manage your symptoms. If you're having problems living with COPD, you're not alone. Reach out and get help from support groups, friends, family, or clergy. Also, the American Lung Association has Better Breathers Clubs across the country.