While chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is no joke, there are absolutely things that patients can do to make the symptoms less invasive, increase their lung health, and ultimately lead to a better quality of life for much longer. These lifestyle changes will complement the medications that are also going be a permanent feature of your life.
1. Stop smoking now
Smoking is, of course, the leading cause of the two conditions that make up COPD, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. You may never have smoked or could have already taken the important step of quitting, but if you are still puffing away, it is essential that you stop. By quitting smoking, you will do the single most important thing you can to delay the progression of your disease, to feel better, and to lower your odds of ultimately dying as the result of COPD.
Nicotine is an addiction that's incredibly hard to beat for many people, so if the nico-demon has you in a tight grip, please ask your doctor about the ways in which they can help you beat smoking once and for all. These may include things you already know about, like nicotine patches and pills, but also talk therapy and support groups.
2. Are irritants and allergens making you sicker?
The answer, almost certainly, is "yes". Allergens and irritants are everywhere — in your home, outside, and pretty much everywhere you go. Everytime you're exposed, your symptoms can worsen. Allergens like pollen, pet dander, dust mites, dust (in which chemicals also build up), and mold, as well as second- or third-hand smoke, carpets, furniture, and household cleaning products emitting volatile organic compounds, pesticides, air pollution, and much more can all rob you of the quality of life you could have.
How do you limit your exposure when these things are all around you, then? You will have to assess what environment exposures you are faced with and discuss how to avoid them with your doctor, but here are some things you should consider:
- Look at the items in your home that could be making you sick, and such as gas stoves, wood burning, cleaning products, carpets, and dust — and try to eliminate as many of them as possible.
- Research has shown that people with COPD living near a factory have worse symptoms — if this applies to you, you may consider moving.
- If you are exposed to environmental toxins at work, discuss alternative roles in which you can avoid this with your employer, or look for another job.
- Look at air pollution forecasts and prevent going outside when the air pollution is particularly bad.
- Steer clear of cigarette smoke by not frequenting places where people smoke.
- Exercise is important, but working out outside in polluted areas is a bad idea, and gyms can contain numerous allergens too. Ask your doctor about the best place to exercise.
3. Stay away from people with respiratory infections
Easier said than done, we know, but being around people with influenza, pneumonia, or even a common cold is incredibly risky for you. You can take the following precautions:
- Let people in your social or professional circles know that you are vulnerable, and ask them to steer clear if they're sniffly or ill.
- If you can, avoid public transport and other settings where you are likely to encounter sick people, especially during flu season.
- Don't hug, kiss, or shake hands with people who may have a respiratory infection, and always wash your hands (or use antibacterial wipes if you can't) after spending time in public settings where you may have had contact with germs. Do not touch your face with unwashed hands.
4. Make very sure you're up to date on your vaccines
For people with COPD, it's not just extremely important to get their annual flu shots, but also pneumococcal vaccines, which help prevent complications such as pneumonia and are administered once every five to seven years. Talk to your doctor to make sure you stay up to date. Being up to date on shots that greatly reduce your risk of developing infections that can be deadly is right up there with not smoking in terms of protecting your health!
5. Hygiene: Beyond handwashing
Frequent handwashing is one of the best things you can do to help prevent infections, but if you have COPD, you should also be aware that it is important to:
- Clean your medication and other medical supplies regularly — dirty inhalers and masks can pose a real danger.
- Humidifiers can be great, but if they're dirty, they'll emit irritants and allergens that will harm rather than help.
- Wash bedding, cloths, clothes, and other fabrics often, vacuum every other day (choose a hoover with a good HEPA filter), and use a dust mite cover for your mattress.
- Good dental health is important, as some research suggests your symptoms are likely to be worse if you have issues in this area.
6. What do you need to know about temperature and altitude?
- Very cold temperatures lead to a narrowing of the airways, causing your symptoms to worsen.
- Hot temperatures can strain your lungs and heat as well, so staying in an airconditioned room is best during this time.
- High altitudes mean your body has to work much harder to breathe, and the same effect can be experienced onboard a plane.
- Dry weather can also have an adverse effect.
7. Regular exercise is important
You may be afraid that exercise will exacerbate your symptoms, but it is still an important part of improving your quality of life — because exercise helps you make more efficient use of oxygen and improve your circulation, it can actually reduce your symptoms in the long-run. Always talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program, but in general, physical activities that will probably not be too straining include:
- Going up and down stairs
- Breathing exercises
Should you start a pulmonary rehabilitation program, exercise will be an important part of it.
8. Do you need to lose weight?
Overweight and obese COPD patients can improve their symptoms by losing weight, as an increased body mass means more work for your lungs and heart. Any weight loss program should ideally be coordinated with your doctor, as you want to make sure you get the nurtients you need. Avoid crash dieting.
9. A healthy diet
Getting the right nutrients is very important for your overall health and immune system functioning. This can present a probolem for some people in the more advanced stages with COPD, as they may find eating difficult because they are out of breath.
You may benefit from:
- Having smaller meals more frequently
- Taking nutritional supplements
- Working with a nutritionist to determine how many calories you require (when your lungs work harder, you will need more) and how to best get them
- A Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to fight inflammation
You'll definitely benefit from:
- A diet that incorporates lots of vegetables, fruits, and wholegrains
- Eat slowly and chew well — this will help you breathe more easily
- Cutting down on saturated, trans, and animal fats
- Saying no to highly processed foods
10. Relearn how to breathe
"Breathing retraining" is part of pulmonary rehabilitation, and it teaches you how to breathe in a way that reduces your symptoms with techniques like:
- Diaphragmatic breathing
- Pursed-lip breathing
11. Fight stress
Stress and anxiety can make breathing harder, so try to find relaxation techniques that work for you. This can include anything from therapy to meditation, and from a COPD support group to eliminating stressors from your life. If you suffer from chronic stress and aren't sure how to move forward, your doctor can be of assistance.
12. Coping with exacerbations
While these lifestyle changes will help you reduce your COPD symptoms, it's always important to be prepared for the worst:
- Pay attention to warning signs like shortness of breath that doesn't get better with your normal medications, tightness in your chest, more wheezing, and increased sputum production (yellow, green, or blood-stained). Always see your doctor if you have flu-like symptoms such as fever and bod aches.
- Keep your doctor's phone number close, and always know where the nearest emergency room is.
- Keep a card with emergency contacts in case you have to be hospitalized.
- Keep a card listing medications you take. (Your wallet is a good place for both these things — in a place where emergency staff can easily find it.)