Living with COPD 

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can affect many aspects of your life. However, there are some simple tips and techniques to help reduce its impact.

Self-care

Self-care involves taking responsibility for your own health and wellbeing with support from people involved in your care.

People living with long-term conditions can benefit enormously if they receive support for self-care. They can live longer, have less pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue, a better quality of life and are more active and independent.

Take your medication

It's important to take your medication as prescribed, even if you start to feel better. Continuous medication can help prevent flare-ups. If you have questions or concerns about the medication you're taking or side effects, talk to your healthcare team.

It may also be useful to read the information leaflet that comes with the medication about possible interactions with other drugs or supplements. Check with your healthcare team if you plan to take any over the counter remedies, such as painkillers, or any nutritional supplements. This is because these can sometimes interfere with your medication.

Regular reviews

Because COPD is a long-term condition, you'll be in regular contact with your healthcare team. A good relationship with the team allows you to easily discuss your symptoms or concerns. The more the team knows, the more they can help you.

Regular meetings with a healthcare professional may also mean that any complications of COPD are spotted early. These include:

  • cor pulmonale, a condition where there is raised pressure in the arteries of the lungs (the pulmonary arteries), and the body retains fluid
  • depression

Keeping well

Everyone with a long-term condition such as COPD is encouraged to get a yearly flu jab each autumn to protect against flu. They are also recommended to get an anti-pneumococcal vaccination, a one-off injection that protects against serious infection caused by pneumococcal bacteria.

Check the weather

Check the forecast as the weather might have an effect on COPD symptoms. Cold spells lasting at least a week and periods of hot weather and humidity can cause breathing problems.

Watch what you breathe

To reduce symptoms of COPD and chances of a flare-up, there are certain things that should be avoided if possible, including:

  • dusty places
  • fumes, such as car exhausts
  • smoke
  • air freshener sprays or plug-ins
  • strong-smelling cleaning products, unless there is plenty of ventilation
  • hairspray
  • perfume

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Healthy living hide

Exercise

People with COPD who exercise or keep active regularly have improved breathing, less severe symptoms and a better quality of life.

For most people with COPD who are disabled by their breathlessness, a structured programme of pulmonary rehabilitation provided by experienced healthcare professionals does the most good. Getting breathless is unpleasant but it isn't harmful. Every patient should exercise as much as they can, however limited that may be, twice a day. Even chair-bound people can do some arm and upper-body movements.

Research shows that pulmonary rehabilitation improves exercise capacity, breathlessness and health-related quality of life. It results in people seeing doctors less often and spending less time in hospital.

Maintain a healthy weight

Carrying extra weight can make breathlessness worse. Therefore, it is a good idea to lose weight if you are overweight. This can be difficult because the breathlessness caused by COPD can make it hard to exercise.

However, some people with COPD find that they lose weight. Eating food high in protein and taking in enough calories is important to maintain a healthy weight.

Research has shown that people with COPD who are underweight will have fewer COPD symptoms if they increase their weight.

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Breathing techniques show

There are various breathing techniques that some people find helpful for breathlessness. These include breathing control, which involves breathing gently, using the least effort, with the shoulders supported. This can help when people with COPD feel short of breath.

Breathing techniques for people who are more active include:

  • relaxed, slow deep breathing 
  • breathing through pursed lips, as if whistling 
  • breathing out hard when doing an activity that needs a big effort
  • paced breathing, using a rhythm in time with the activity, such as climbing stairs

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Talk to others show

If you have questions, your GP or nurse may be able to reassure you. You may find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor or psychologist, or someone at a specialist helpline. Your GP surgery will have information on these.

Read about counselling and psychiatry.

Some people find it helpful to talk to other people who have COPD, either at a local support group or in an internet chat room.

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Relationships and sex show

Relationships with friends and family

Having a chronic illness such as COPD can put a strain on any relationship. Difficulty breathing and coughing can make people with COPD feel very tired and depressed. It is also inevitable that their spouse, partner or carer will feel anxious or frustrated about their breathing problems. It is important to talk about your worries together.

Being open about how you feel and what your family and friends can do to help may put them at ease. But do not feel shy about telling them that you need some time to yourself, if that is what you want.

Your sex life

As COPD progresses, the increasing breathlessness can make it difficult to take part in activities. The breathlessness may occur during sexual activity, which may mean your sex life can suffer.

Communicate with your partner and stay open-minded. Explore what you both like sexually. Simply touching, being touched and being close to someone helps a person feel loved and special.

Your doctor, nurse or physiotherapist may also be able to suggest ways to help manage breathlessness during sex.

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Flying show

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and are planning to fly, go to your GP for a fitness-to-fly assessment. This involves checking your breathing using spirometry and measuring your oxygen levels.

Before travelling, remember to pack all your medication, such as inhalers, in your hand luggage.

If you are using oxygen therapy, tell your travel operator and airline before you book your holiday, as you may need to get a medical form from your GP. If you are using long-term oxygen therapy, arrange to take an adequate oxygen supply with you abroad.

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Money and financial support   show

People with COPD often have to give up work because their breathlessness stops them from doing what they need to do for their job. This can cause financial pressure.

There are several benefits for which people with COPD may be eligible:

  • If you have a job but cannot work because of your illness, you are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay from your employer.
  • If you do not have a job and cannot work because of your illness, you may be entitled to Employment and Support Allowance.
  • If you are caring for someone with COPD, you may be entitled to Carer’s Allowance.
  • You may be eligible for other benefits if you have children living at home or if you have a low household income.

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End of life care  show

COPD is a serious condition. At least 25,000 people die each year from the end stages of COPD.

As with other conditions that cannot be reversed or cured, it is important to receive good care at the end of life. Talking about this and planning it in advance can be helpful. This is called palliative care.

It can be difficult to talk about dying with your doctor and, particularly with family and friends, but many people find that it helps. Support is also available for your family and friends.

It may be helpful to discuss which symptoms you may have as you become more seriously ill, and the treatments that are available to reduce these.

As COPD progresses, your doctor should work with you to establish a clear management plan based on your and your carer's wishes. This will include whether you would prefer to go to hospital, a hospice or be looked after at home as you become more ill.

You may want to discuss drawing up an advance decision, also called a living will, which sets out your wishes for treatment if you become too ill to be consulted. This might include whether you want to be resuscitated if you stop breathing, and whether you want artificial ventilation to be continued.

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Page last reviewed: 01/10/2014

Next review due: 01/10/2016