Living With Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

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Living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is often challenging since the disease can dramatically impact your daily life. A diagnosis of COPD may lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. As the disease progresses, physical activity or social interaction might become more difficult.

Despite all of this, you can improve your quality of your life with COPD. By implementing lifestyle changes and learning ways to cope, you can slow the progression of the disease and continue to live—one day at a time—to the fullest extent possible.

Emotional

A diagnosis of COPD can bring a roller coaster of emotions along with it. Fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, and shame are just a few of the feelings you might experience. All of these emotions are perfectly normal and understandable, and they will most likely get easier as you make changes in your life and feel more in control of your health.

However, it's good to be on the lookout for problems like serious depression, anxiety, or fear that may require additional treatment. Staying on top of your mental health is important because it affects your quality of life and your physical health.

Watch for Depression

Depression is a real illness caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain. It's different from ordinary sadness.

If you have depression, you may need medication, counseling, or both. Remember, you don't have to suffer alone. If you have any of these symptoms for two weeks or more, talk to your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Social isolation
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness

Monitor Anxiety Levels

For some people, real physical symptoms, such as an increased heart rate and sweating, accompany an anxiety disorder.

However, you may also suffer from some not-so-typical effects of anxiety, including:

  • Tension of your neck, shoulders, back, and jaw muscles
  • Problems with digestion, including constipation or diarrhea
  • Changes in sleep patterns, which can include an inability to sleep, difficulty falling asleep, or early waking
  • Panic attacks, which are different from generalized anxiety and include a racing heart, numbness, and unusual physical sensations

If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. You may benefit from medication and/or counseling.

Anxiety and/or depression can increase your risk for COPD exacerbation.

Deal With Fear

We all have them—certain fears that can cause us unusual dread and worry. Fear is our most basic and primitive human emotion. But while having a fear or two is normal, when your fears start to interfere with your daily life, it's time to talk to your doctor.

Irrational fears are known as phobias. Symptoms of phobias include intense anxiety, the preoccupation of your thoughts on the source of anxiety, and an overwhelming sense of doom or terror.

For people with COPD, a fear of experiencing sudden and severe breathing difficulties can develop. If you feel that fear is taking over your life, a mental health professional may help you see things more clearly. You can also try joining a COPD support group. Talking to others can help distill some of your fears and make life much more enjoyable.

Give Up Remorse

Many people with COPD feel intense remorse for their disease. In particular, this can occur in smokers and former smokers, who may have a sense of guilt about the impact their habit has had on their health.

If you feel overwhelmed with remorse, try to forgive yourself. In forgiveness, there lies peace and comfort.

Living life with regret is a waste of energy that you could be putting into something more constructive, like developing healthy habits and taking better care of yourself. There is life after COPD, and it's time that you started to live it.

Other people in your life may make insensitive remarks about your lifestyle choices, which can increase feelings of remorse. Be open with others about how these comments affect you.

Learn About COPD

Educating yourself and your loved ones about COPD can help you feel more in control of your health. Learn everything you can about how COPD affects your lungs and your life and share it with your friends and loved ones so they can understand how best to support you—whether that's by running errands or helping you remember to take your medication.

Reduce Stress

Reducing the stress in your life can help keep exacerbations at bay. Here are some tips:

  • Make time to keep doing the activities and hobbies that you enjoy.
  • Try relaxation exercises such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Get the amount of sleep you need to feel rested and rest during the day when needed.
  • Watch your diet. Too much sugar and high-calorie junk food can sap your energy, leading you to feel unproductive and anxious.
  • Pinpoint areas of your life that cause you stress. This could be money, social situations, having too many responsibilities, or grief over your diagnosis. Work on fixing or eliminating these sources of stress and if you need help, ask for it.
  • Hand off some responsibilities to others, at least some of the time. This can include anything from hiring outside help to creating a rotating schedule so that each family member takes turns doing certain tasks.

Physical

Smoking cessation is the most important aspect of living with COPD. Continuing to smoke causes additional lung damage, and also predisposes you to COPD exacerbations.

Beyond smoking cessation, there are a number of other things you can do to protect your health from further problems when you have COPD

Avoid Triggers

Exposure to airborne irritants, such as secondhand cigarette smoke or fumes from a wood-burning stove or a nearby factory, can exacerbate your symptoms of COPD. Some people who have COPD feel very short of breath when exposed to perfume or cleaning products too. Protect yourself from environmental triggers whenever you can.

Maintain a Safe Environment

Maintaining a safe environment is an important part of COPD management and should be moved to the top of your priority list. Safety, both inside and outside the home, will help to preserve your health.

To make your home safer:

  • Improve the air quality in your home. Consider using an air filter to prevent excessive dust and debris from getting through your air conditioning unit.
  • Remove all throw rugs from the floors.
  • Place safety bars inside bathrooms, showers, and bathtubs and along walkways both inside and outside your home.
  • Use a raised toilet seat if you need one.
  • Remove all cords and other debris from pathways inside and outside the home.
  • Ensure that there's adequate lighting in and around your house.
  • Use non-slip slippers or shoes when moving about your home.
  • Discard any medication that's expired or not in use in a safe place.
  • Do not allow yourself to be near anyone who smokes (especially if you're on oxygen).
  • Write down emergency numbers and place them in a visible place.

Conserve Your Energy

Unlike healthy people, breathing for a COPD patient involves a conscious effort and can be extremely challenging. Breathlessness is understandably the most frightening aspect of COPD.

Practicing energy conservation techniques will help you pace yourself so you can complete whatever you need to do without getting so out of breath. For example, remember that it's OK to take your time speaking. Talk in short phrases or sentences and pause while you are speaking to rest if necessary.

Avoid Shortness of Breath During Meals

If you're getting short of breath while you're trying to eat, you're not alone. This is a frequent problem in people with COPD and one of the most important to overcome, as malnutrition is one of the more common complications of COPD.

The following guidelines may help:

  • Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day.
  • To have more energy, rest before you eat.
  • Chew your foods completely and eat slowly.
  • Allow yourself plenty of time to eat.
  • Avoid foods that force you to chew excessively.
  • Since many people who suffer from COPD frequently eat less, try focusing on eating foods that are high in calories to maximize your caloric intake.
  • Supplement your diet with liquid meal preparations, like Boost or Ensure.

You may also be trying to restrict your fluid intake to avoid extra trips to the bathroom that can leave you breathless, but this can result in dehydration. Consider using a commode chair if toilet trips are especially exhausting for you.

Exercise Often

Exercise is an essential part of our daily lives. When you have COPD, it's especially important. Implementing simple stretching and breathing exercises or a daily walk will help you maintain your physical and emotional well-being.

Many of the benefits of exercise are important to your health, including:

  • Improving your quality of life: Exercise gives you a feeling of control over your life and helps you to maintain your independence.
  • Helping you maintain or lose weight: Carrying more weight around than you should makes it harder to breathe. Exercise helps you control your weight, helping you breathe easier.
  • Improving your mood: Exercise is associated with alleviating depression and relieving stress, giving you a mood boost.
  • Improving your sleep: If you sleep better at night, you will have more energy during the day. Exercise helps all of us sleep better.
  • Helping you use oxygen more efficiently: Exercise strengthens the muscles you use for breathing as well as your other muscle groups, helping you expend less energy.

Pain Management

You may experience COPD-associated pain due to the hard work of breathing. While pain can be treated with medication, some pain medications may interfere with your breathing reflexes, which is dangerous in COPD.

To minimize your use of pain medications, consider non-pharmacological methods of preventing and reducing pain such as acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, breathing exercises, guided imagery, and meditation.

Social

Finding a support group, whether online or in your community, can help you deal with the changes that COPD brings to your life. It helps to hear others' stories, share your own, and to know you're not alone.

You can also see a therapist for one-on-one counseling to help you cope and learn to adjust to your diagnosis. Couples therapy is a good option if your COPD diagnosis is causing tension in your relationship.

Making time for friends and loved ones is important. Isolating yourself can create stress, which increases the risk of COPD exacerbations.

Consider taking trusted friends or loved ones to your doctor's appointments or involve them in your daily exercise. Talk to them about how you're feeling and what fears you may have. Having the support of friends and family relieves stress and keeps you engaged and vital.

Practical

You and your loved ones may be concerned about how COPD will affect your ability to support yourself, travel, and continue to live an independent life. All of this depends on the severity of your condition; you might need to consider applying for long-term disability benefits. But this is not always the case, and with a little adjustment, you may be able to continue to do what you love.

Work

If the type of work you do will make your COPD worse, you may need to consider leaving your job. Otherwise, talk to your employer about making adjustments that will allow you to continue working with as few disruptions as possible.

Some relatively easy things your employer might do to accommodate you include:

  • Assigning a parking space for you that's close to the door
  • Moving your workstation closer to the entrance of the building
  • Permitting you to work from home a couple of days a week, or even every day
  • Giving you the flexibility to come in late or leave early for healthcare appointments 
  • Providing a smoke-free, dust-free, fume-free environment—for instance, asking your co-workers not to wear heavy colognes or perfumes
  • Making sure the office has adequate ventilation
  • Allowing you to use a scooter or motorized cart in the office

Travel

Fortunately, living with COPD doesn't mean you can never enjoy traveling again. The key to an enjoyable trip is safety through planning and preparation. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Travel to a safe and healthy location.
  • Make sure to have a checkup with your doctor before you leave.
  • Don't forget your medication.
  • Get your medical equipment serviced before you leave.
  • Carry an oxygen prescription with you if you're on oxygen.
  • Bring the proper clothing for the climate to which you are traveling.
  • Get enough sleep; don't overload your itinerary.

If you are oxygen-dependent and planning to travel by plane, certain restrictions will apply to each airline. Most won't let you bring your own oxygen on board, and will, therefore, require a prescription and/or letter from your doctor prior to departure.

Make sure you contact the airline prior to your travel date to confirm the requirements for traveling with oxygen or other accommodations you may need.

Remember, too, that altitude may affect your oxygen requirement. Discuss this with your doctor at your pre-travel appointment.

Pets

If you had a pet before you developed COPD, you may notice that taking care of your pet provides you with some exercise. And many pet-owners find that pets help reduce stress.

With COPD, it is especially important that you keep your pet's fur adequately trimmed and clean to avoid a reaction to the fur or other material that can get caught in your pet's fur. If taking care of your pet is becoming exhausting for you, consider asking for help from friends or family.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. COPD Foundation. Coping with COPD.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Nutritional Guidelines for People with COPD. Updated September 14, 2018.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. COPD: Exercise & Activity Guidelines. Updated September 14, 2018.

  4. Cleveland Clinic. COPD: Traveling Tips. Updated September 14, 2018.

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