Posted on 19/11/2019

Understanding COPD: how to best manage breathlessness

Understanding COPD: how to best manage breathlessness

In support of World COPD Day 2019, we’re raising awareness of the condition by breaking down what COPD means, how it can affect those living with it and, most importantly, highlighting the ways you can manage the condition better to live more comfortably.

COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Put simply, it is a long-term health condition that affects your lungs and airways, which causes difficulties when breathing. COPD is actually the umbrella term for emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but they are usually referred to together as COPD.

Chronic bronchitis – a type of COPD where the airways become inflamed and narrow due to an irritant, such as tobacco. Inflammation of the airways causes difficulties breathing as less air can get into and out of your lungs.

Emphysema – a type of COPD that causes damage and break down of air sacs in the lungs. The air sacs help to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, but if they are damaged the carbon dioxide can get trapped, causing the diaphragm to work harder when moving air into and out of the lungs.

COPD is usually caused by long-term exposure of harmful substances to your lungs, including cigarette smoke, fumes and chemicals, but there is also some evidence which shows that it runs in families. In reality, COPD is largely preventable, usually by avoiding or quitting smoking. However, some people are more likely to be affected by breathing in harmful substances than others and it can be the case that some people who have never smoked also develop COPD.

Millions of people are affected by COPD around the UK, but it is too often diagnosed in the late stages of the condition. COPD’s main symptom is breathlessness and finding it difficult to breathe normally in day-to-day life. A lot of people may experience breathlessness when doing daily tasks that don’t usually tire them, such as cooking a meal, but people often disregard this as a sign of getting older and general unfitness. When someone is diagnosed in the early stages of COPD they have the best chance for effective treatment and a longer and healthier life; that’s why it is important to speak to your GP if you find yourself getting breathless often and during small tasks.

Visit the NHS website to find out more about the symptoms of COPD.

Managing COPD and staying prepared

If you have recently been diagnosed with COPD you may still be figuring out your symptoms and how they affect you. You may also still be finding out the best ways to manage your breathing, how to stay prepared for flare ups and how to spot triggers. The following highlights a few pieces of advice for how to manage various areas of day-to-day life when living with COPD.

Smoking – if you have been diagnosed with COPD and still smoke, quitting smoking will be the best way to reduce symptoms and flare ups. Smoking causes serious damage to your lungs and is the leading cause of COPD.

Exercise and diet – if you have COPD staying active is one of the best ways to improve your breathing, but it is sometimes avoided because people are worried about getting out of breath. A little breathlessness is not usually dangerous but it is important not to overexert yourself or push yourself too far. Remember, there are many different ways to stay active and pulmonary rehabilitation can help you learn what exercise is best for you. Maintaining a balanced diet and a healthy weight will also help to improve your breathing.

Hot and cold weather – prepare for the cold weather this winter as it can affect your breathing and lead to flare ups. Make sure you wear enough clothes and have gloves, scarves and hats handy, whilst avoiding longer periods of time outside or going out in extreme temperatures. Hot or dry air can also affect your COPD so it is important to stay prepared, hydrated and keep cool during the summer or when you go on holiday.

Breathing control – there are a number of breathing techniques and positions that can help to both manage and prevent COPD flare ups. You can find out more information about breathing control and techniques on the British Lung Foundation’s website.

Medication – it’s important to know when you need to start taking your COPD medication. You may have different medication to help prevent your flare ups and to manage them when they occur.

Daily tips and tricks – COPD can cause wheezing and breathlessness whilst doing daily activities, such as walking up the stairs or cooking a meal. The British Lung Foundation has a list of simple tips to avoid breathlessness during day to day activities, including planning your day, keeping frequently used items in places that are easy to reach and investing in equipment such as a home trolley or reacher to reduce exertion.

Finding information and support

If you, or someone you know, have recently been diagnosed with COPD, the British Lung Foundation and NHS both have lots of information about the condition, including symptoms, diagnosis and causes. The BLF also offer support services and a helpline where you can talk to someone about anything concerning COPD or another lung condition.

Alternatively, you can visit our COPD Conditions Page with lots of information and resources for people who are living with, or know someone who has been diagnosed with, COPD.

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