What can you do to improve your breathing?

You sit down to watch TV and a commercial is on talking about COPD and a new medication for treating it. You have COPD and wonder if this medication will help you. What you may not realize that COPD is a broad term for several conditions. Each condition is caused by a specific irritant and, therefore, treated differently from the other.

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COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is when there is chronic inflammation of the lungs that causes obstruction of air flow. There are two main conditions that fall under COPD and both are caused by long term exposure to irritants to the lungs. The primary irritant is smoking and secondary concerns are air pollution, toxic gases and dust. Emphysema is when the alveoli (air sacs) in your lungs are destroyed by irritants. Once damaged, the alveoli collapse when you exhale causing the air not to be able to flow out of your lungs. Chronic Bronchitis is when the linings of the bronchial tubes (the passageway between your alveoli and outside your body) become inflamed causing the opening to narrow. Mucus is produced causing further narrowing of the openings of the tubes.

With both conditions, it is common to have a daily cough, shortness of breath (especially with physical activity), wheezing, cyanosis (blueness of lips/nail beds), lack of energy, swelling in ankles/feet/legs, mucus production and chest tightness. Most people are able to manage their symptoms by following a plan set up for them by their doctor. Occasionally, people will experience a sudden worsening of their symptoms and this is called an exacerbation. They are common and can last several days. It is important to monitor these closely and seek medical help if necessary. Several things that increase your risk of developing COPD are smoking, asthma (especially if you smoke and have asthma), occupational exposure to dust/chemicals and exposure to fumes from burning fuel. Age and genetics also play a role. Typically, due to the length of time needed to cause a significant amount of damage to the lungs, COPD often doesn’t present until later in life. Some of the complications of COPD include heart problems, lung cancer, high blood pressure in the lung arteries (pulmonary hypertension) and depression (from decrease in activities that you can participate in). The most common complication and often cause for concern is an increase in the number of upper respiratory infections you get (having COPD makes you more susceptible to getting a cold or the flu). The problem with having an upper respiratory infection is that your body doesn’t have the ability to fight it the way a healthy person does and this can cause you to have a COPD exacerbation. Please see Fast Facts for a quick look at COPD causes, symptoms and treatment.

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Unfortunately, COPD is not something that can be cured. It can be effectively managed and most people are able to lead productive lives once it is under control. COPD is diagnosed through pulmonary function tests, chest x-rays, CT scans, arterial blood gases, and lab work. Once diagnosed, your doctor will determine which type you have in order to provide the best treatment plan. Most plans include some kind of inhaler, maybe more than one. The medicines inside the inhalers have different purposes, so you might have one called a quick-acting, or emergency inhaler, to use to help open up your airway if you have a sudden increase in shortness of breath. Other inhalers are maintenance inhalers and help to reduce inflammation in the lungs and they are taking on a regular basis (usually once or twice a day). Also, doctors will prescribe pills that function similar to inhalers but they work throughout your entire body, not just your lungs. Sometimes during an exacerbation or as your COPD worsens, your doctor will prescribe breathing treatments and/or oxygen for you to use at home. At any point if you feel that you can’t breathe, always seek medical attention—this usually means going to the emergency room in order to receive care as quickly as possible.


The best thing that you can do to prevent yourself from developing COPD is not to smoke! The next best thing is to limit your exposure to toxic chemicals, dust or gases. If you have asthma, take care of yourself and keep it managed to the best of your ability. This will decrease the amount of damage to your lungs that will put you at an increased risk for developing emphysema or chronic bronchitis, in addition to your asthma.

If you already have COPD, manage your symptoms as best as you can following the plan laid out by your doctor. If you are not feeling relief, talk to your doctor about changing the course of treatment. Take care of your health by trying to prevent upper respiratory infections, such as washing your hands, staying away from people who are sick and getting your flu/pneumonia vaccines.

A diagnosis of COPD can seem scary and overwhelming at first, but when well-managed, you can lead a full and productive life. If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor. If you would like further information, please visit the American Lung Association at https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/copd/