Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is an umbrella term used to describe diseases of the lungs including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and asthma. Over 30 million people in the US have symptoms of COPD and are not aware of it.1 Since the disease has to do with lungs, breathlessness is one of the most common signs, which is often ignored. COPD can develop years without noticeable shortness of breath. So, if you experience any one or more of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor immediately.
Signs And Symptoms Of COPD
The onset of COPD may cause no symptoms or only mild symptoms. With time, as the disease develops, so does the severity of the symptoms. Some of the common symptoms of the disease include:2
- Frequent cough (with or without mucus)
- Shortness of breath even with mild activities
- Chest tightness
- Respiratory infections like the flu
A lot of these symptoms begin mild and you may end up adjusting your lifestyle to make it easier for breathing. However, over time, these symptoms become serious. Some of the severe symptoms of COPD that may require treatment at the hospital include:
- Swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs
- Weight loss
- Lower muscle endurance
- Increased breathlessness making even talking difficult
- Blue or gray lips and fingernails
- Rapid heartbeats
- A drop in mental alertness
Causes Of COPD
In the United States, the most common cause of COPD is cigarette smoke. Pipes, cigars, and other forms of tobacco use can also cause COPD. Apart from cigarette smoke, there are other causes of COPD, which include:
- Exposure to second-hand smoke (air from other people smoking)
- Air pollution
- Long-term contact with chemicals, fumes, and dust in work environments
- Frequent use of a cooking fire without proper ventilation
- Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (AATD) (a genetic condition in which the white blood cells damage the lungs)
While most people with COPD are smokers or have a history of smoking, some do not develop COPD. The long-term exposure to any lung irritant can cause the disease. Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD. If a person is diagnosed with the disease, there are treatments available to reduce the severity of the symptoms.
Available Treatments For COPD
The first and foremost step to treat the disease is to quit smoking, if you are a smoker. The best way to get relief from COPD symptoms is by reducing everything you can to slow the damage done to the lungs. The following medications are normally prescribed by the doctor to treat COPD:3
- Quick-relief drugs to open the airways
- Control drugs to reduce lung inflammation
- Anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce airway swelling
- Long-term antibiotics
In severe cases, bronchodilator medicines and oxygen therapy may be prescribed to relieve COPD symptoms. Along with these treatments, there are certain lifestyle changes you can execute to make living with the disease easier for you.
Living With COPD
COPD symptoms can be managed by making these simple yet effective changes to your lifestyle.
1. Keep Your Diet Balanced
It is important to stay mindful of what you are eating and having COPD makes it a tad more important. Having a balanced diet every day can improve your health by boosting the immune system. Here’s what you need to have a healthy, balanced diet.
- Low-fat protein foods like lean cuts of meat and oily fish
- Complex carbohydrates like brown rice, whole-grain bread, and quinoa that are rich in fiber
- Fresh fruits and vegetables containing the essential vitamins and minerals
However, care must be taken while having certain foods that can increase the production of gas and the bloating feeling as they can increase breathlessness. For instance, some people may experience bloating after having beans. Similarly, some people may find an increase in mucus after having too many dairy products.
Therefore, knowing the foods that can aggravate your symptoms is also important to manage COPD symptoms. Salt, fried food, and caffeinated products are some of the foods that COPD patients must stay away from to ease their symptoms.
2. Practice Breathing Techniques
When you have COPD, chances of breathlessness are high. It may become difficult to do normal tasks and everyday activities. However, you can practice these breathing techniques that may work for easier and better breathing.4
This breathing technique slows your breathing down and keeps the airways open for long, reducing the work of breathing.
- Breathe in through your nose for about 2 seconds.
- Pucker your lips like you are ready to blow out a candle.
- Breathe out slowly through pursed-lips, two or three times as long as you breathed in.
Diaphragmatic (Abdominal/Belly) Breathing
When you have COPD, your diaphragm – the main muscle involved in breathing – does not work like it would normally. This is not an easy technique; it is recommended to get instructions from a respiratory health care professional. This technique is best done when you are relaxed. Sitting back or lying down would be an ideal position for this technique.
- Relax your shoulders.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.
- Breathe in through your nose for about two seconds.
- As you breathe in, your belly should move outward. Your belly should move more than your chest.
- As you breathe out slowly through pursed-lips, gently press on your belly. This will push up on your diaphragm to help get your air out.
3. Perform Exercises Safely
Most people with COPD are under the impression that they cannot exercise because they fall short of breath too quickly. However, exercises may help with your breathing and lung capacity if done correctly and safely. When you start exercising, make sure you begin slow and easy and gradually increase the speed and time. Before starting any new physical activity or exercise, get the approval from your healthcare provider.
4. Join A Support Group
Knowing that you have COPD can cause anxiety, fear, and even depression. It is important to talk about the way you feel with your doctor. Sometimes, talking to a professional counselor may help. Joining a support group may help you adjust to living with the disease. It may also be a learning experience for you, where you hear stories of others who coped with their symptoms.
If you experience any signs of breathlessness or any other breathing difficulties, do not overlook them. Diagnosing the disease at the early stages will help with its treatment.