Jun 9, 2016
COPD Signs, Symptoms and Treatments: What Your Doctor May Not Have Told You
It’s a clear, sunny day, so you and some friends take a walk together. Unfortunately, long before your friends tire, you are out of breath. You just can’t keep up. If chronic coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath are limiting your activities, you might have COPD.
What Is COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, better known as COPD, is not just one disease, but an overarching term used to classify a number of lung diseases, including refractory asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. As many as 24 million Americans may be living with COPD.
Although COPD encompasses several individual diseases, there are common symptoms. These include wheezing, a tight feeling in the chest, breathlessness that worsens over time and chronic coughing, either with or without sputum. You may think that these symptoms are simply a normal development that comes with aging, but they are actually signs of a very real problem.
Who Might Have COPD?
Many people develop COPD because of exposure to pollutants. Smoke is one of the biggest culprits. This includes cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke. About 90% of COPD sufferers are–or once were–smokers. Exposure to secondhand smoke can also increase your risk of COPD.
Environmental pollutants can also lead to COPD. Long-term exposure to dust or chemicals, whether at home or in the workplace, can irritate the lungs and cause COPD.
Pollutants are not the only cause of COPD. Unfortunately, some people are genetically predisposed to developing it. Usually, this is due to a deficiency of Alpha-1 Antitrypsin protein, because of which white blood cells cause lung damage.
Granted, you may not be aware of your Alpha-1 Antitrypsin levels, but if you have other risks of COPD, such as a history of smoking or of working in an environment with poor air quality, you should consult a doctor. Many people do not recognize the signs until the disease has progressed moderately far, but early detection makes a difference.
How Is COPD Diagnosed?
If you suspect that you may be at risk of having COPD, whether because of troubling symptoms, family history or exposure to pollutants, you should see a doctor for a test. You’ll be glad to know that the first test given for COPD is simple and noninvasive.
It’s called spirometry. It involves blowing out all of the air in your lungs into a machine, which measures how much you blow out in one second and in six seconds. The ratio of those two measurements shows whether you have COPD and how severe it is. After spirometry, your doctor may order further tests to confirm that your symptoms are caused by COPD, rather than other diseases.
Although there is no cure for COPD, there are treatments that can help you live a full life, despite the disease. A proper diagnosis means that you can receive the best possible treatment for your symptoms.
How Is COPD Medicated?
There are two types of medication that help people with COPD. The first are controller medications, which treat your symptoms over the long-term. The second are rescue medications, which help in-the-moment when breathing gets rough. Most people use both types: the first to keep symptoms under control, day in and day out, and the second to provide quick relief during an attack.
A key distinction is that controller medications should be used regularly, even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms, but rescue medications should be used only as needed, which, ideally, won’t be more than a couple of times each week.
How Should I Take Care of My Body?
Prescriptions aren’t the only thing that can help your COPD. For maximum effect, they should be a accompanied by lifestyle changes, like exercise and diet.
Although it’s hard to fathom working out when breathing is an everyday struggle, a proper exercise regimen will help keep your body strong. Of course, no one becomes a marathon runner overnight, and in the same way, you must work up to the level of activity you want to achieve. Work out for 20 to 30 minutes, at least three days a week, and gradually increase the intensity over time. Good activities for people with COPD often include water aerobics, walking and bicycling; consult your doctor for recommendations. Whatever activity you choose, the exercise will keep your body strong, helping you live your best life possible.
Even the food you eat can make a difference in your symptoms. Metabolizing food produces carbon dioxide; the best diet for COPD patients focuses on foods that produce less carbon dioxide when metabolized. Carbohydrates are high on the carbon dioxide scale, so limit those, and make sure that the ones that you do eat are complex carbs, like vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
On the other hand, metabolizing fats produces less carbon dioxide, so they are better for your breathing. That’s not carte blanche for unlimited burgers and fries, though. The best fats are unsaturated fats, whether mono-unsaturated or poly-unsaturated. They’re found in fish, nuts and olives. Saturated and trans fats aren’t good for you, so limit those.
A few other tips to remember: foods that help COPD should be low in sodium and not cause you to feel bloated.
What Else Can I Do?
Medication, exercise and diet are some of the best things you can do to manage your COPD, but other lifestyle changes can help, as well:
- Get a flu shot every year. A bout of influenza can be particularly rough for people with COPD.
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water each day.
- Quit smoking. If you are a smoker, continuing to smoke will only make your disease worse. Quitting can be difficult, but it will ease your symptoms.
- Maintain clean air quality. Breathe easier in your home by keeping your air clean. Reduce dust levels, let fresh air in through open windows and don’t allow smoking in your home. You may want to install an air filtration system.
- Practice breathing techniques. One easy trick that every COPD sufferer should know is how breathe in a way that helps your lungs get more air. Pursed-lip breathing is a simple technique that can do just that. To do it, purse your lips like you’re blowing out a candle. Breathe in through your nose, then breathe out through your pursed lips. Exhale for at least twice as long as you inhaled. Repeat the process as necessary.
- Start oxygen therapy. Your doctor may want you to begin a regimen of oxygen treatment. He or she will prescribe the oxygen and let you know how often to use it.
- Join a support group. A local group of others who experience similar struggles can help you learn to deal with COPD. The American Lung Association can direct you to a group in your area.
COPD can’t be cured, but it’s also not a prison sentence. With your doctor’s help, you can learn to live with this disease, manage symptoms and live a full life. Medication, exercise, diet and lifestyle adjustments work together to help you thrive, despite your diagnosis.