Important Strategies to Prevent and Manage COPD
COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is a serious lung condition affecting more than 15 million Americans, and many may not be aware they have it. For those living with COPD, the airways, or tubes carrying air in and out of the lungs, are partially blocked, making it more difficult to breathe.
The two common types of COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. With emphysema, the air sacs in the lungs (called alveoli) become damaged, making it harder to pull in oxygen. This causes shortness of breath and fatigue. Bronchitis is inflammation of the lining of the airways, (called bronchial tubes), producing a wet cough, mucus, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Symptoms of bronchitis seen periodically for two years or more lead to chronic bronchitis and COPD.
COPD is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and increases the risk of heart disease and cancer. It is usually diagnosed after age 40, and research indicates more women live with and die from COPD than men. While the number of cases for men is decreasing, women’s cases have increased, and evidence suggests this is due to a higher susceptibility of the lungs to the damage of smoking.
The symptoms of COPD increase slowly over time, can vary from person to person, and include shortness of breath and fatigue with daily activities such as walking or climbing stairs, frequent coughing (often called “smoker’s cough”), wheezing, trouble taking a deep breath, and excess mucus or phlegm production. If you have the symptoms of COPD, share these concerns with your health care provider.
The number one risk factor for COPD is smoking. One in four people who have COPD have never smoked, but other risk factors include exposure to secondhand smoke and workplace exposure to air pollutants such as chemicals, dust, fumes, gases, and vapors. Other factors include a history of childhood respiratory infections and asthma, and over 100,000 Americans have been diagnosed with COPD due to a genetic deficiency called alpha-1-antitrypsin affecting the lungs.
To prevent and treat COPD, it is important to take action. If you smoke, the most vital thing to do is quit smoking. While the damage of smoking cannot be reversed, stopping can help prevent further damage. Talk to your provider about ways you can quit. If you are 50 or older and have a smoking history of 20 years or more, it is important to complete a CT lung screening once a year. If you live or work with smokers, take precautions to prevent exposure to secondhand smoke. If exposed to air pollutants in the workplace, wear protective equipment and stay informed regarding workplace safety.
The earlier COPD is diagnosed, the faster medical treatments can help improve and control symptoms. This will help to slow the progression of the disease and manage flare-ups, ensuring you can stay active and feel better. COPD can be diagnosed in-office using spirometry or pulmonary function testing. Treatments include oral medications and/or inhalers to open airways, decrease mucus production, and manage any infections or flare-ups. Additionally, oxygen therapy can be added when needed. Once you have a COPD diagnosis, there are several strategies to manage your health.
For shortness of breath, there are two helpful and simple breathing techniques: tripod position breathing and pursed lip breathing.
For the tripod position, you may stand or sit in a sturdy, straight chair with arms slightly bent and hands braced on the knees, table, or pillow for support. Lean forward with a straight back to a 45-degree angle, and take several slow, deep breaths from the belly (diaphragm).
Pursed lip or straw breathing can be done at any time. Close your mouth and take a slow, steady breath in through the nose, then breathe out through the mouth while pursing your lips, like blowing out with a straw.
Regular physical activity can help with oxygen intake and build strength and endurance. Talk to your provider about physical activity or ask for a referral to pulmonary rehab for monitored exercise. Pulmonary rehab is a wonderful way to learn to exercise safely and meet others with COPD. Managing stress and getting adequate sleep also promotes overall health.
Good nutrition helps with overall health and energy levels. Include whole foods such as lean meat, poultry, seafood, whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables. Try smaller, more frequent meals and snacks to avoid getting too full. Limiting sugar, sweets, sweet drinks, and highly processed foods can also help decrease shortness of breath.
Many people with COPD are sensitive to allergens, including air pollution and irritants. Find someone else to clean the house or wear an N-95 mask. Fumes from bleach, bathroom and oven cleaners, and spray polish in unvented areas can set off breathing issues. Use baking soda, vinegar, and mild solutions of soap and water instead. Purchase unscented soaps, lotions, shampoos, and hygiene products. Use air purifiers and HEPA filters in heat and air systems and vacuum cleaners to reduce airborne irritants. Reduce humidity with air conditioners, dehumidifiers, and fans.
Dust mites are another culprit. Replace carpet with wood floors, wash bedding and area rugs regularly, and vacuum regularly. Keep pets washed and groomed, and make the bedroom a no-pet zone. Be on the lookout for mold in the kitchen and bath areas. If pollen triggers symptoms, limit time outside during pollen season and close the windows.
Know your day-to-day COPD symptoms, be alert to any changes, and call your provider if symptoms progress. Coughing more, feeling more tired or restless, having a fever over 100.5 degrees, experiencing increased breathing issues and needing more oxygen or meds, or producing more mucus all signal the need for a provider call or visit.
More serious changes that may require a visit to the emergency department include difficulty breathing when at rest, feeling more confused or sleepier than usual, medications not providing relief, or fingers, toenails, or lips turning blue.
Talk to family and anyone in your circle about the different levels of care, from day-to-day management to symptoms for seeing your provider, or a more serious issue necessitating emergency care. COPD isn’t an easy diagnosis, but it is manageable when you develop a plan to minimize symptoms, maximize health, and know when to ask for help.
Amanda Cieluch is an adult geriatric nurse practitioner at the HopeHealth Medical Plaza and is accepting new patients. Visit online at hope-health.org or call (843) 667-9414.