Living well with COPDSee all parts of this guide Hide guide parts
Living with COPD can be difficult but it doesn't have to mean your working life or social life are over.
Simple techniques to manage COPD can help you cope better with your condition. These include:
- learning to control your breathing
- being mindful of fatigue and over exertion in your daily activities
- going to a pulmonary rehab centre
- getting your annual flu vaccine
- taking your prescribed medication regularly
- pacing yourself
- eating a healthy, well balanced diet
Living with COPD will be challenging at times but you can make small changes to your daily routine and mindset which will have a big impact on your quality of life.
COPD support groups (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vy_Q-HEEjAk)
Many people find having a long term condition or 'invisible condition' isolating, and the changes in their situation can lead them to withdraw from work and social life. This can have a serious impact on your mental wellbeing.
Joining your local COPD support group is a good way to meet people who really understand what you are going through. They can help give you advice on how to live well with COPD and support you through difficult times.
Many groups also offer outings, social occasions and hobby classes such as singing or walking. To find your nearest COPD support group use our Service Directory.
Many people find pulmonary rehabilitation very useful to learn about helpful techniques to manage COPD. Ask your health care professional about pulmonary rehabilitation, it can teach you useful methods such as pursed lip breathing to help with shortness of breath.
Myths about COPD
Common myths about COPD that can stop people from getting the right treatment.
Myth: Only smokers get COPD
Although smoking is the main cause of COPD, not everyone who has COPD is a smoker. COPD is also caused by:
- fumes and dust
- air pollution
- genetic tendancy to the disease (for example alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency)
- passive smoking
You can't assume that a person with COPD smokes or dismiss the illness as 'self inflicted'.
Myth: You can't exercise if you have COPD
Exercising is actually recommended to individuals with COPD. Regular exercise can improve your breathing, make your symptoms less severe and improve your quality of life.
Even chair-bound individuals with severe breathlessness can do some adapted exercises such as upper arm exercises.
Find out more about exercising with COPD
Myth: COPD only affects the lungs
COPD primarily affects the lungs but it also can cause:
- weight loss
- tiredness and fatigue
- swollen ankles
- high blood pressure
COPD can also increases the risk of heart disease and like any long term condition, depression and mental illness can also come into play.
Myth: COPD is untreatable
COPD has no cure yet, but this doesn't mean that it's untreatable. By improving your lifestyle, you can live a long and full life with COPD. A common misinterpretation is that 'Chronic' means really bad or extreme rather than long term.
Individuals who exercise more and maintain a healthy weight can experience less severe symptoms and enjoy a better quality of life. Practising breathing techniques could also increase your lung capacity.
If you smoke, quitting smoking will also help to combat COPD symptoms.
Myth: COPD is a man's disease
This is simply not true. Both men and women can have COPD.
In fact in Scotland, women develop the condition with a lower exposure to smoking than men.
Myth: Only older people get COPD
Many individuals with COPD are over 65, however you can experience COPD symptoms at any age.
It's thought COPD is only diagnosed when individuals' symptoms can no longer be ignored. They may have been experiencing these symptoms much earlier in their 40's and 50's and done nothing about it.
It's also thought that two thirds of people with COPD are undiagnosed and go undiagnosed until later life.
Myth: There's no point in quitting smoking
It's never to late to quit smoking, as this could slow the progression of COPD. COPD will not go away if you quit smoking, but it could benefit your health. Quitting could potentially allow some lung function to return.
Hints and tips
Although there is no cure for COPD yet, there are many changes you can make to your daily routine and habits that will help you live well with the condition.
Everyone will have different triggers that affect their lungs, this could be traffic pollution, dry ice, smoke from a wood burning stove, spices or many other things. The important thing is working out what makes your condition worse and taking steps to avoid or reduce contact with these things.
People with COPD can have flare ups linked to seasonal changes, for example a high pollen count in the spring and summer or very cold air in the winter. Here are some tips to help you
In the spring and summer the pollen level may affect your lungs. If you have had your bedroom window open during the day cover the bed with a dust sheet and carefully remove it before bed. This will catch any pollen coming through the open window during the day.
If you dry your clothes outside during the summer remember this might increase the amount of pollen on them.
In summer use a damp cloth over your hair when you come in from outside as this will help remove the pollen stuck to you.
Take your coat and shoes off before entering your house to avoid bringing in too much pollen and carrying it through your house.
In winter wear a scarf over your mouth when you go outside to stop cold air irritating your lungs.
Have your flu vaccine. If you have COPD, getting flu can cause lots of problems and trigger a serious flare-up of your condition.
Read further information on managing flare ups.
What to do in a panic attack
Many people start to panic when they feel breathless. To prevent a panic attack one thing you can do is find out more about your condition. If you understand what is happening to your body it takes away the panic from not knowing what is happening to you.
If you do have a panic attack the following tips could help:
- learn to breathe – it is a good idea to learn relaxation techniques to help your breathing, particularly if you have a panic attack
- Sing happy birthday – this might sound strange but concentrating on singing a well known song will help change your focus and regulate your breathing
- remember that breathlessness is normal and not to be feared – people without COPD get breathless when they exercise, climb stairs etc.
- don't blame yourself for your condition or your symptoms in that moment, focus on making improvements to your lifestyle to live better with COPD
There are various breathing techniques that some people find helpful for panic attacks or breathlessness. These include breathing control, which involves breathing gently, using the least effort, with the shoulders supported.
Breathing techniques for people who are more active include:
- relaxed, slow deep breathing
- breathing through pursed lips, as if whistling
- breathing out hard when doing an activity that needs a big effort
- paced breathing, using a rhythm in time with the activity, such as climbing stairs
In the home
You can make living with COPD easier by making small changes to your home, you might find some of these suggestions helpful:
- vacuum your bed and keep dust in the house down
- try wet dusting rather than dry dusting to remove dust particles
- avoid chemical sprays for cleaning, try using more traditional methods such as vinegar and lemon juice. There are also now many wipe versions of popular cleaning products available
- use roll on deodorant instead of spray deodorant
- avoid plug in air freshners
Many people find having a long term condition link COPD very isolating. There are many benefits to joining a local support group for COPD:
- you learn a lot of useful information on how to cope with your condition
- you can learn from others in the same situation
- you realise you are not alone
- you can make good friends – some groups organise holidays, outings and Christmas parties together
- you have the support of others who really understand what you are going through
- other members may have more than one long term condition and may be able to help you with other conditions you might have
- people can become isolated because of their condition and can lose friends, joining a support group is a good way of connecting with a new social circle
Some people with COPD find using a dehumidifier in the home improves their symptoms. These are available from many online retailers.
Others find that wearing a mask on airplanes or when walking in the city can help to reduce the impact of 'recycled' air traffic pollution on the lungs.
Using a walker or trolley can provide extra support when walking and means that you don't have to carry shopping on your arms, so the weight is spread more evenly. Many walkers/trolleys also have a seat option so you can rest if you need to.
Relationships with friends and family
Having a chronic illness such as COPD can put a strain on any relationship. Difficulty breathing and coughing can make people with COPD feel very tired and depressed. It is also inevitable that their spouse, partner or carer will feel anxious or frustrated about their breathing problems. It is important to talk about your worries together.
Being open about how you feel and what your family and friends can do to help may put them at ease. But do not feel shy about telling them that you need some time to yourself, if that is what you want.
Your sex life
As COPD progresses, the increasing breathlessness can make it difficult to take part in activities. The breathlessness may occur during sexual activity, which may mean your sex life can suffer.
Communicate with your partner and stay open-minded. Explore what you both like sexually. Simply touching, being touched and being close to someone helps a person feel loved and special.
Your doctor, nurse or physiotherapist may also be able to suggest ways to help manage breathlessness during sex.
If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and are planning to fly, go to your GP for a fitness-to-fly assessment. This involves checking your breathing using spirometry and measuring your oxygen levels.
Before travelling, remember to pack all your medication, such as inhalers, in your hand luggage.
If you are using oxygen therapy, tell your travel operator and airline before you book your holiday, as you may need to get a medical form from your GP. If you are using long-term oxygen therapy, arrange to take an adequate oxygen supply with you abroad.
For further information, read the British Lung Foundation information about going on holiday with a lung condition.
Money and financial support
People with COPD often have to give up work because their breathlessness stops them from doing what they need to do for their job. This can cause financial pressure.
There are several benefits for which people with COPD may be eligible:
- if you have a job but cannot work because of your illness, you are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay from your employer
- if you do not have a job and cannot work because of your illness, you may be entitled to Employment and Support Allowance
- if you are caring for someone with COPD, you may be entitled to Carer’s Allowance
- you may be eligible for other benefits if you have children living at home or if you have a low household income
Read further information:
- British Lung Foundation: Financial support
- GOV.UK: Benefits and financial support
- Find your nearest Citizens Advice Bureau
End of life care
COPD is a serious condition. At least 25,000 people die each year from the end stages of COPD.
As with other conditions that cannot be reversed or cured, it is important to receive good care at the end of life. Talking about this and planning it in advance can be helpful. This is called palliative care.
It can be difficult to talk about dying with your doctor and, particularly with family and friends, but many people find that it helps. Support is also available for your family and friends.
It may be helpful to discuss which symptoms you may have as you become more seriously ill, and the treatments that are available to reduce these.
As COPD progresses, your doctor should work with you to establish a clear management plan based on your and your carer's wishes. This will include whether you would prefer to go to hospital, a hospice or be looked after at home as you become more ill.
You may want to discuss drawing up an advance decision, also called a living will, which sets out your wishes for treatment if you become too ill to be consulted. This might include whether you want to be resuscitated if you stop breathing, and whether you want artificial ventilation to be continued.
Read further information:
Exercising with COPD
Studies have shown that if you exercise with COPD and keep regularly active it can improve breathing and reduce some of your symptoms. Many people find joining a walking or singing group helpful for increasing their lung capacity. Others find physiotherapy, Tai chi or yoga can really help their fitness and breathing.
When you have COPD you may become less active to avoid getting breathless. This results in loss of fitness and confidence, which in turn increases your breathlessness. Breathlessness itself isn't dangerous, it's a normal response to exertion. Having COPD means this response can happen more quickly and is simply the lungs working harder to get more oxygen into your body.
You should exercise as much as you can, however limited that may be, twice a day. Even chair-bound people can do some arm and upper-body movements. You can improve your fitness and mobility by trying some simple exercises in the home.
Remember to ask a health care professional for approval before attempting any exercise.
Arm curls (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqc7Qc-Ocak)
You can use light weights to do this movement or even household items such as tins of food.
|Hold the weight at your side, palm forward and breathe in|
|Lift the weight toward your chest, keeping elbows down, and exhaling slowly|
|Slowly lower your arms back down as you breathe in|
Chest and bicep stretch (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHV3Ud9G3g8)
|Have your hands on your lap, palms facing down|
|Inhale, then straighten your arms and reach them as far back as you can until you feel a stretch in your chest|
|Exhale as you slowly lower your arms|
Other simple stretches that you can perform from your seat or in your home include:
Tai chi was originally created as a form of martial art, today it is practised as a health-promoting, low-impact activity. Tai chi is a particularly popular activity for individuals with COPD because it helps to ease muscles and relax you.
Many of the movements and poses involved can also be adapted for people with restricted movement including oxygen therapy users.
Not all physical activity has to be high intensity. If you have difficulty standing or are afraid of falling, chair dancing is a great way to stay active and have fun.
Chair dancing is simple and has several benefits such as:
- improved cardiovascular fitness
- muscle toning
- improved coordination
- improved mood
Chair dancing is great as a group activity as it gives you a chance to socialise and reminisce with friends to your favourite songs.
Exercising while on oxygen
If you are on oxygen treatment, some exercises may not be suitable for you as the oxygen tank may be inconvenient. However you can still do some exercises whilst on oxygen. Remember to ask a health care professional for approval before attempting any exercise.
You may find it helpful to use longer tubing on your oxygen tank for more freedom to move around when exercising.
When not to exercise
If you experience any of the following symptoms you should stop exercising immediately:
- coughing up unusual fluids
- worsening shortness of breath
- chest pains
- feeling dizzy/lightheaded
- too fast or an irregular heartbeat
Read further information:
Maintaining a healthy weight
Carrying extra weight can make breathlessness worse. Therefore, it is a good idea to lose weight if you are overweight. This can be difficult because the breathlessness caused by COPD can make it hard to exercise.
However, some people with COPD find that they lose weight. Eating food high in protein and taking in enough calories is important to maintain a healthy weight.
Research has shown that people with COPD who are underweight will have fewer COPD symptoms if they increase their weight.
Read further information about eating well and maintaining a healthy weight.
23 November 2022
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