September 24, 2023

Get the Facts About COPD and Living With the Disease

Quitting smoking helps immediately, but this disease doesn’t only affect people who smoke

COPD in lungs as background with medications and person walking in foreground.

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), your mind may be spinning with questions. How did you get it? Will it limit your activities? Is it treatable?

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Some answers you hear may not be accurate, considering myths consistently shared about the condition. Let’s separate fact from fiction with pulmonologist Kathrin​ Nicolacakis, MD.

Myth 1: Only people who smoke get COPD

COPD is often associated with smoking — and with good reason. Smoking cigarettes and other tobacco products stand as the most common cause of COPD, given the damage done to the lungs and airways.

But nearly 30% of people with COPD have never taken a puff from a cigarette. Nonsmoking causes of COPD can include:

Myth 2: It’s too late to quit smoking if you have COPD

The lung damage behind COPD is cumulative. Every cigarette you puffed on contributed to the condition if you smoked. If you keep smoking, every additional cigarette will make your COPD worse.

“Some people think there’s no benefit to quitting smoking once they are diagnosed with COPD,” notes Dr. Nicolacakis. “But it’s never too late to quit. Stopping at any point will slow the progression of the disease.”

Consider this, too: Your body starts to see benefits from not smoking within 20 minutes of snuffing out your last cigarette. The plusses keep adding up in the smoke-free hours, days, weeks, months and years that follow.

So, if you’re looking to kick the habit, talk to your healthcare provider about a smoking cessation program. Every day after you quit will help your health.

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Myth 3: Exercise is too hard if you have COPD

Shortness of breath, wheezing, a chronic cough and fatigue all can be part of COPD. Any one of those symptoms can make it a challenge to exercise.

But you can get moving without fear of making COPD worse — and that activity will pay off. “Moderate exercise will not hurt your lungs,” reassures Dr. Nicolacakis. “In fact, it can lessen COPD symptoms, strengthen your heart and reduce stress.”

Try to build up to 20 to 30 minutes of exercise three to four times a week. Combine a safe cardiovascular activity, like walking or biking with some stretching and strength-building.

While you’re getting your workout in, be sure to breathe out slowly through pursed lips. Take twice as long to exhale as to inhale, recommends Dr. Nicolacakis. Rest before and after exercise, too.

Odds are it won’t be easy to start exercising. Talk to your healthcare provider about building a plan that works for you. They may be able to connect you with a respiratory therapist for breathing techniques and exercises you can do.

Myth 4: There’s no treatment for COPD

Can COPD be 100% cured? No. But there are ways to minimize the impact of the disease and slow its progression.

“COPD is treatable,” states Dr. Nicolacakis. “If you have symptoms, there are many options to help you feel better. We may not be able to reverse it, but we can control the symptoms and prevent further damage to the lungs.”

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Medications prescribed by your healthcare provider can help offset COPD complications. Treatment options could include:

  • Inhalers that open your airways or reduce airway inflammation.
  • Supplemental oxygen, when indicated.
  • Alpha-1 infusions if you have that inherited deficiency.
  • PDE4 enzyme inhibitors, which can reduce inflammation in some people.

Can COPD get reversed?

You may wonder: Will COPD go away if you follow the treatment methods mentioned above?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. As mentioned, the lung damage that characterizes COPD develops over many years. It doesn’t just disappear with a change in habits or medications, says Dr. Nicolacakis.

Tips to manage your COPD

Taking care of yourself is important to slow the progression of COPD, she adds. Lifestyle decisions can help you stay active and involved with family and friends. Here are 10 things you can do to better control COPD.

  1. Quit smoking (if you smoke). As outlined above, you can see benefits whenever you stop smoking. This can’t be emphasized enough.
  2. 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 if your ankles swell, a common symptom of COPD. Also, rest before and after activities.
  3. Don’t overdo it. Make realistic plans for exercise and chores, and avoid extreme exertion (such as heavy lifting, raking and shoveling) that push you too hard. It’s best to avoid working long days, too.
  4. Keep up with vaccinations. Get a flu shot six weeks before the start of flu season every year to better protect yourself against the respiratory illness. Other vaccines can help prevent pneumonia, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) (age 60 and older) and COVID-19. Talk to your healthcare provider to see if you need another vaccine to stay up-to-date with the latest recommendations.
  5. Guard against getting sick. See your healthcare provider ASAP if you think you’re getting sick to begin treatments before the start of a serious chest infection. Wash your hands often as well.
  6. Maintain a healthy weight. Extra pounds can make your heart and lungs work too hard. Being too thin, meanwhile, can leave you more easily fatigued and increase your risk of chest infections.
  7. Stay hydrated. Drinking six to eight glasses of caffeine-free liquid every day can help thin mucus in the airways to help you breathe more freely.
  8. Plan smaller meals. Filling your belly can put pressure on your lungs and chest, making it more difficult to breathe. Eating five to six small meals a day can limit putting pressure on your chest.
  9. Limit sodium intake. Overdoing it on sodium and salt can lead to water retention that complicates your breathing. Look for lower-sodium food options.
  10. Eat more fiber. Did you know eating more fiber has been connected to better lung function? Try any of these 31 high-fiber foods to help manage your COPD.

“Taking care of yourself in these ways, plus taking your medications, can sometimes help offset the complications of COPD,” encourages Dr. Nicolacakis.

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