Tips to Clear Airways When You Have COPD

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on April 11, 2023
4 min read

When you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), you may have too much mucus in your airways. There are different movements and practices to help with that. Experiment with what works best for you. Your doctor may also have advice on how to do this.

Move your body into different positions and use gravity to help reduce the mucus in your lungs. Try a combination of these movements:

Postural Drainage. Lie down in different positions to drain the mucus from your lungs. If you use an inhaler, wait 30 minutes before you do these moves. Stay in each of the positions for at least 5 minutes. It’s best to do this on an empty stomach. Lie on your bed or the floor and use pillows for support.

To clear the front of your lungs, lie on your back and make sure your hips are higher than your chest. Place a small pillow under your head and two others beneath your hips. With one hand on your belly and the other on your chest, breathe in and push your belly out. Now exhale and notice how your belly sinks back down.

Next, roll over to either your left or right side to clear mucus from the sides of your lungs. Spend 5-10 minutes on each side. Use pillows under your head and hips to keep your chest lower than your hips and use the belly breathing technique.

Lie face down on your stomach to drain mucus from the back of your lungs. Place a few pillows under your hips and rest your arms by your head while you breathe in and out from your belly.

The chest percussion technique works best when you have help from a partner or caregiver. With a cupped hand, tap on your chest and back. A light tap can loosen the mucus. Ask your doctor where on your body to tap to be most effective. Studies show that chest percussion may not help people hospitalized because of their COPD symptoms but may help those with less advanced symptoms.

Check with your doctor before you start an exercise program. People with COPD may see benefits from swimming, dancing, tai chi, dancing, qi gong, and yoga. Your doctor or physiotherapist can help you pick an activity.

Breathing exercises may also help you clear your airways. With pursed lip breathing, breathe in through your nose, hold it for 2 seconds and slowly exhale from mouth as though you’re blowing out a candle. To practice deep breathing, get in a comfortable position and expand your chest. Take in a deep breath for as long as you can, exhale, and repeat.

Your breath is a force and coughing techniques use it to open your airways and lower your chances of infection. The key is to follow the directions and to only do them for short periods of time.

Many people with COPD have success with huff coughing. While seated in a chair or on the side of a bed, lean your chest forward and take a deep breath in. As you exhale through your mouth, contract your stomach and make short breathy sounds while you say “ha, ha, ha.”

The controlled coughing technique uses little oxygen to loosen and move mucus through your airways. Sit down with your feet flat on the floor. Lean forward and fold your arms over your stomach as you breathe in through your nose. Cough two to three times through your mouth in short, sharp breaths. Now, breathe in softly through your nose and repeat if needed.

With the active cycle of breathing technique (ACBT), you will combine the different coughing techniques to move your breath into small and larger areas of your lungs. Gently breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth six times to relax your chest. Next, you want to move air into the small airways of your lungs. Inhale deeply and hold it for 3 seconds. Exhale softly. Last, use the huff cough technique to get the mucus out of the larger airways. Repeat the final step until you have coughed up the mucus.

These habits can help you thin and loosen the mucus in your lungs:

  • If you smoke, quitting is the best change to make. Ask your doctor what will help. And avoid other people’s tobacco smoke.
  • Drink at least six to eight glasses of water a day
  • Ask your doctor if you should limit how much dairy you eat
  • Take a daily multivitamin