Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is a progressive lung disease that damages the airways in your lungs and makes it hard to breathe, impacting your work, exercise, sleep and other everyday activities. According to the American Lung Association, the disease affects more than 11 million people in the U.S. and is the third leading cause of death.
In support of National COPD Awareness Month, Rodney G. Benjamin, M.D. , a pulmonologist with the Lung Health Program at South Miami Hospital, responds to common questions about living with COPD. His answers and advice may help you manage your symptoms and enhance your quality of life.
What lifestyle changes can I make to improve my COPD?
Quit smoking: If you smoke, quitting is the first step in slowing down the progression of the disease. It’s never too late to quit smoking. Smoking after you have COPD symptoms puts you at a huge risk for disabling disease, which can onset surprisingly quickly compared to stopping tobacco use.
Lose weight: If you are overweight, carrying excess weight can make you feel short of breath. Obesity affects lung mechanics, so losing weight will optimize your breathing and, most importantly, improve your exercise capacity.
Eat a healthy diet: Eating foods rich in antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables, and reducing your caloric intake of animal protein, which can cause inflammation, will bolster your immune system. Eating small meals frequently, rather than large meals, also can help lessen shortness of breath.
Get some exercise: Resistance exercises will build strength and aerobic exercises will improve your circulation and help your body better use oxygen. When your muscles are stronger, daily activities become easier. Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.
What medications should I take?
Today’s medications for COPD are very effective. A long-acting bronchodilator should be used regularly to keep your airways open. There is solid evidence that using this medication preserves lung function and protects lung reserves.
Short-acting bronchodilators, or rescue inhalers, will help open your airways in an emergency. Your doctor also may prescribe corticosteroids to reduce inflammation in your airways and make breathing easier.
Should I attend pulmonary rehabilitation?
I think anyone with symptomatic COPD should attend pulmonary rehabilitation and patients with asymptomatic COPD should attend a maintenance program. The program teaches you about your disease and how to exercise, strengthen your breathing muscles and be more active with less shortness of breath. These programs will enhance your quality of life.
What vaccines do I need?
When you have COPD, a respiratory infection or cold can become very serious. That’s why it’s important to get vaccinated against the flu and pneumonia. You also should talk to your doctor to determine if you should have a Tdap vaccine to protect against pertussis (whooping cough).
How do I prevent a COPD exacerbation (flare-up)?
Following your COPD care plan as prescribed by your doctor is the best way to prevent an exacerbation. This includes eating healthy, exercising, taking your prescribed medications and getting immunized. Since an exacerbation most often is linked to an infection, you’ll want to stay away from people who are sick, wash your hands often, get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids.
Be sure to partner with your doctor to discuss all the ways you can maintain a good quality of life while living with COPD and create an action plan for life’s eventualities.