Breathing comes to us naturally and (usually) pretty easily. However, if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, better known as COPD, you have trouble doing what connects us to life – you can’t easily breathe.
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The disease can affect your airways, air sacs or both. It’s the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Lung Association – affecting more than 11 million Americans and another estimated 24 million who go undiagnosed.
If you were recently diagnosed with COPD, your mind may be spinning with questions like, “Can COPD be reversed?” or “Is COPD fatal or curable?” Pulmonologist Kathrin Nicolacakis, MD, sheds light on four common myths about COPD and why it’s often misunderstood:
Myth 1: Only smokers get COPD
Fact: While COPD is often associated with smoking, and rightly so, there are a substantial number of people with this condition who never smoked.
According to the National Institutes of Health, 42% of COPD sufferers are former smokers, 34% are current smokers and the rest – which make up 24% — never lit a cigarette.
Myth 2: There’s no treatment for COPD
Fact: There is a lot that can be done for COPD patients.
“People need to know that COPD is treatable, and if you have symptoms, there are many options to help you feel better,” says Dr. Nicolacakis. “We may not be able to reverse it, but we can control the symptoms and prevent further damage to the lungs.”
It’s important to quit smoking, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of exercise and keep up on your influenza and pneumonia vaccines to prevent serious illness. Taking care of yourself in these ways, plus taking your medications, can sometimes help offset the complications of COPD.
Your doctor will help tailor medications to your needs. Medications include inhalers that open your airways or reduce airway inflammation, supplemental oxygen, and alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT) infusions if you have an inherited deficiency. PDE4 enzyme inhibitors can reduce inflammation in some patients, too.
Myth 3: If you have COPD, it’s too late to quit smoking
Fact: “Some people think that once they are diagnosed with COPD, there’s no benefit to quitting smoking,” says Dr. Nicolacakis. “But it’s never too late to quit because it will slow the progression of the disease.”
You may wonder: Will COPD go away if I stop smoking?
Unfortunately, the lung damage that characterizes COPD is cumulative, which means that it doesn’t go away just because you kicked the habit, but there’s still a lot of benefit to quitting.
However, if you quit smoking early enough, near-normal lung function may return.
“Try a smoking cessation program,” she says. “Combining nicotine replacement with counseling, group support and medication is your best chance of success.”
Myth 4: Exercise is too hard if you have COPD
Fact: If you find that shortness of breath makes it too difficult to be physically active, there are further steps you can take. Talk to your doctor if they recommend pulmonary rehabilitation, where specialized respiratory therapists teach breathing techniques, exercises and proper nutrition to make living with COPD easier.
“Moderate exercise will not hurt your lungs, either,” she says. “In fact, it can lessen COPD symptoms, strengthen your heart and reduce stress.”
To get your body moving, build up to 20 to 30 minutes of exercise three to four times a week. Combine a safe cardiovascular activity you enjoy with stretching and strengthening exercises. While you’re getting your workout in, be sure to breathe out slowly through pursed lips, taking twice as long to exhale as to inhale. Rest before and after exercise, and wait an hour and a half after meals to work out.
Tips to manage your COPD
If you have COPD, there are steps you can take so that living with it more manageable. Managing it well will allow you to stay active and involved with family and friends. Besides quitting smoking, taking prescribed medications and exercising, the following can also help:
- Conserve your energy. Try to get plenty of sleep at night and plan for one rest period per day. Elevate your head at night and your feet during the day when your ankles swell. Also, rest before and after activities and make realistic plans for chores and avoid extreme exertion, such as heavy lifting, raking and shoveling. It’s best to avoid working long days.
- Prevent respiratory infections. Wash your hands carefully, especially after being outside. Get a flu shot six weeks before the start of flu season each year and get the pneumococcal vaccine every five years to help prevent pneumonia. See your doctor if you think you’re getting sick and if they recommend antibiotics that can prevent serious chest infections.
- Eat right. Maintain a healthy weight. If you’re too heavy, your heart and lungs have to work too hard. If you’re too thin, you’re more easily fatigued and at higher risk of chest infections. Dr. Nicolacakis recommends drinking six to eight glasses of caffeine-free liquid every day to thin mucus in the airways and eating fiber to keep your digestion moving. It’s important to limit salt to avoid water retention and bloating and to avoid overeating. If you get full too fast, consider five to six small meals a day, take small bites, and save liquids for the end of the meal. If you have an oxygen cannula, wear it while eating.
Not sure if you might have COPD?
Be aware of any symptoms. The first signs of COPD may include a hacking cough with phlegm, shortness of breath, wheezing when you breathe or tightness in your chest.
If you notice any of these symptoms, see your doctor for a spirometry test, a simple outpatient procedure that assesses your lung function by measuring how much air you’re able to breathe in and out.