I have COPD, how can I improve the quality of life?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I have COPD. My doctor is great about prescribing medication, but he doesn’t give me much other advice. So I’ll ask you: What can I do to improve my quality of life?

DEAR READER:

There’s a lot you can do. And I have to admit that not all doctors are very good about telling you how your actions can protect your health.

First, some basics. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of disorders that damage the lungs and make breathing increasingly difficult. Common symptoms include a mucus-producing cough, breathlessness, rapid breathing, wheezing, tightness in the chest and fatigue.

You can do a lot to minimize the symptoms from COPD so you can continue to do the things you enjoy:

PREVENT RESPIRATORY INFECTIONS. Any respiratory infection — even the common cold — can worsen COPD symptoms. To reduce your risk:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or alcohol-based instant hand sanitizers.
  • Get vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia.
  • Get a flu shot every year.
  • If you do get the flu, ask your doctor about antiviral medication. It can reduce the severity and duration of your illness.

PARTICIPATE IN PULMONARY REHABILITATION. Pulmonary rehab combines exercise therapy, breathing retraining, education and psychological support to help you to carry out day-to-day activities with greater ease and independence. I strongly recommend it to all of my patients with COPD.

EXERCISE REGULARLY. Regular exercise helps maintain strength and prevents you from becoming easily tired during physical activities. Aerobic exercise, like walking, is most beneficial. Aim for at least 20 minutes on most days.

DO BREATHING EXERCISES. Pursed-lip breathing is a valuable technique you can learn in pulmonary rehabilitation. Use it to pace yourself through physical activities so you don’t feel out of breath.

EAT AND DRINK REGULARLY. Small meals are easier to digest and use less energy than large meals. Try having smaller meals throughout the day instead of three large meals. And drink plenty of water, which will help you to cough up mucus more easily.

AVOID LUNG IRRITANTS. Many things, from dry air to pollen, can irritate your lungs. Here are some tips for avoiding irritants:

  • Use a humidifier when the air is very dry. Dry air can irritate the airways.
  • Ventilate your home to reduce dust and cooking exhaust in the air. Unless you are allergic to outdoor allergens, keep windows open when the weather is warm enough.
  • Have furnaces and chimneys inspected and cleaned regularly.
  • Avoid aerosol products.
  • If you have allergies, avoid whatever triggers them: pollen, pet dander, dust, mold, etc.

All of the things I’ve suggested you do to protect yourself against the consequences of COPD take time, and some take money. Believe me: They’re worth it.