How to Treat Mild COPD in the Early Stages

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an inflammatory disorder characterized by the restriction of airflow into and out of the lungs. It affects over 600 million people worldwide and accounts for over four million deaths annually.

The Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) classifies COPD into four stages, with the mildest form being stage I. If you are diagnosed with stage I COPD, it means that your ability to fill your lungs to capacity or to expel air forcefully has been mildly impacted.

In some cases, there may be few visible symptoms, and you may not even be aware that you have the disease. If symptoms do appear, they tend to be mild and progressive, and can include:

  • Wheezing
  • A mild but persistent cough
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

The good news is that you can slow the progression of COPD in its early stages so long as you are willing to make a few, basic lifestyle changes.


Stop Smoking Today

Never too late to stop smoking: old man breaks cigarette
Don Bayley / Getty Images

Quitting smoking is the one thing you need to do at any stage of the disease. Not only will stopping make you feel better physically and emotionally, it can dramatically slow the progression of the disease.

Smoking damages the air sacs (alveoli), airways, and lining of your lungs, the injury of which can make it harder to inhale and exhale.

Smoking can also trigger for COPD flare-ups.

Quitting can be tough, but there are a number of strategies you can rely upon to ensure greater success. Among them:

  • Try stopping all at once rather than tapering down or switching to low-tar or low-nicotine brand.
  • Try keeping a journal to reinforce the reasons you want to quit and identify the triggers that can lead you to light up.
  • Avoiding other smokers or places where people smoke may help you stop smoking.
  • Use exercise to improve your sense of well-being to reinforce the health benefits associated with expanded lung capacity.

Get Your Flu and Pneumonia Shots

woman getting a flu shot
Blend Images / Getty Images

According to GOLD, annual flu shots can reduce the risk of illness and death in people with COPD by around 50%. The pneumonia vaccine is also recommended for people 65 years of age and older to better reduce the risk of bacterial pneumonia.

People with COPD have compromised lung function and, as such, are at high risk of getting the flu.

When pneumonia develops, the damage caused to the lungs can be irreversible.

If you are living with COPD, the prevention of flu and pneumonia is not only essential, it's often as easy as a trip to your local pharmacy.


Use Your Bronchodilator as Prescribed

Woman using a bronchodilator, France
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Although bronchodilators do little to slow the progression of COPD, your healthcare provider will still likely recommend one if you are experiencing any flare-ups or shortness of breath.

Short-acting bronchodilators like Albuterol or Proventil (also known as rescue inhalers) are used on an as-needed basis for the relief of persistent or worsening respiratory symptoms.

Ultimately, the less stress you put on your lungs during the early stages of the disease, the less accumulative damage they will likely incur.


Eat Healthy to Address Your COPD

healthy eating habits - woman eating salad
Troels Graugaard/Getty Images

While a healthy diet cannot cure COPD, it can help you feel better and provide more energy for all of your daily activities, including breathing.

The simple fact is that COPD places enormous stress on your body and effectively burns up all of the fuel you get from eating. As such, people with COPD will often need to increase their caloric intake, ideally with healthy foods rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals.

Eating right can also bolster your immune system and, in turn, help fight any chest infections that are common among people with COPD.


Get Up and Exercise

Senior woman dressed in pink does a shoulder and upper back exercise using a theraband.
Tetra Images/Tetra Images/Getty Images

The importance of daily exercise is often overlooked when putting together a COPD treatment plan. Why? Because it requires a certain degree of dedication, and even a little discomfort, when you first begin.

Beyond the obvious health benefits, an informed exercise program can help you regain a sense of control over your life while increasing feelings of wellness and self-esteem no matter how mild or advanced your disease may be.

To get the most out of a fitness program, start by assessing your exercise tolerance with your healthcare provider. This will allow you to know how much exercise you can reasonably manage when first starting out.

With this information in hand, you can meet with a fitness professional who can put together a routine (ideally performed three to four times weekly) that starts easy but allows for rapid progression as you become more fit.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Chee A, Sin DD. Treatment of mild chronic obstructive pulmonary diseaseInt J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2008;3(4):563-573. doi:10.2147/copd.s3483

  3. Warren CP. The nature and causes of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a historical perspective. Can Respir J. 2009;16(1):13-20. doi:10.1155/2009/540527

  4. Almagro P, Castro A. Helping COPD patients change health behavior in order to improve their quality of lifeInt J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2013;8:335-345. doi:10.2147/COPD.S34211

  5. Bekkat-Berkani R, Wilkinson T, Buchy P, et al. Seasonal influenza vaccination in patients with COPD: a systematic literature reviewBMC Pulm Med. 2017;17(1):79. doi:10.1186/s12890-017-0420-8

  6. Rawal G, Yadav S. Nutrition in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A reviewJ Transl Int Med. 2015;3(4):151-154. doi:10.1515/jtim-2015-0021

Additional Reading

By Deborah Leader, RN
 Deborah Leader RN, PHN, is a registered nurse and medical writer who focuses on COPD.