The Essential Guide to Living with COPD

Table of Contents

Managing COPD Triggers
Maintaining a Healthy Weight
Managing Stress Levels
Breathing Exercises for COPD
Natural Treatments
Common Medicines for COPD Treatment


Your life will inevitably change after a diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). You will not only have physical challenges but also emotional challenges that can decrease your quality of life.

Although there is no cure for COPD, you can do many things to slow its progression, which can increase both your survival and quality of life.

Managing COPD Triggers

Quit Smoking

If you smoke, the most important part of your COPD treatment plan is to quit. You will feel better almost immediately.

Although quitting smoking won’t cure COPD, it can help slow the progression of the disease and make it easier for you to breathe. It will also improve your overall health and reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other smoking-related illnesses.

Medication, like bupropion (Zyban) and varenicline (Chantix), and nicotine replacement therapies — available in patch, gum, lozenge, inhaler, and nasal spray forms — have been proven to help curb cravings. Just make sure to talk to your doctor before using them.

Common Indoor Triggers

Common indoor COPD triggers include:

  • Tobacco smoke as well as smoke from cooking, fireplaces, or wood stoves;
  • Fumes from cleaning products, paints, and household solvents;
  • Dust, mold, or mildew;
  • Pet hair and dander, and;
  • Strong odors, such as perfumes, scented candles, and air fresheners.

Common Outdoor Triggers

Common outdoor COPD triggers include:

  • Air pollution, such as smog, vehicle exhaust, pollution from factories, and fumes at the gas pump;
  • Extremes in weather, especially below freezing and above 90° F;
  • Pollen, especially in the spring and fall;
  • Grass cuttings, and;
  • Insect sprays.

Improve Air Quality in your Home

To improve the air quality in your home, you should consider:

  • Banning Smoking in Your Home: Secondhand smoke is one of the most common triggers of COPD flares.
  • Using an Air Purifier: This can remove allergens and other irritants from the air. Choose air purifiers (as well as vacuum cleaners) that have a high-efficiency particulate air filter.
  • Using a Humidifier: This adds moisture to the air, which can loosen mucus and allow you to cough it up more easily.
  • Replacing Carpet with Hardwood Floors: This helps to control dust, pet hair and dander, and other allergens, as high levels of these lung irritants can buildup in carpeting. Also, keep your bedroom dander free by making it off limits to pets.
  • Avoiding the Use of Harsh Chemicals Indoors: Instead, you should choose natural, non-toxic (e.g., vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda, and water) materials that are free of perfumes and dyes.
  • Yearly Inspection of HVAC Ducts: Mold and mildew can accumulate in these ducts, going undetected and unknowingly make your condition worse.

Maintaining a Healthy Weight

What to Do if Overweight

It’s no secret that being overweight can make it even harder for you to breathe if you have COPD. Consumption of a healthy, balanced diet along with regular exercise can stimulate weight loss, which has the potential to help with your COPD symptoms.

Also, you should avoid:

  • Eating large meals, since it makes breathing more difficult;
  • Foods that make you gassy or bloated, as this can adversely affect breathing;
  • Skipping meals and;
  • High fat or high sugar foods and drinks.

What to Do if Underweight

People with COPD have higher calorie requirements due to the effort it takes to breathe. In someone with COPD, the muscles involved in breathing can use 10 times more calories than in those without the condition. As a result, many patients with COPD lose weight and are actually underweight.

If you are underweight, you should consider eating five to six small, well-balanced meals per day plus snacks for an appropriate number of calories. Plus, it goes without saying that you should avoid low-calorie foods.

Exercises to Improve COPD

Although it can be challenging at times, regular exercise is another cornerstone of the treatment of COPD. If you have COPD, regular exercise can provide an array of benefits, including improvement in oxygen levels in the blood and energy as well as strengthening your heart, lowering your blood pressure, and improving your circulation.

Consideration should be given to the following exercises:

  • Walking
  • Stationary cycling
  • Swimming
  • Taichi
  • Stretching (e.g., calf raises and leg extensions)
  • Water aerobics
  • Lightweights (e.g., arm curls and forward arm raises).

You should start slow and talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program. Also, don’t forget to bring a rescue inhaler when you exercise in case your symptoms flare.

Managing Stress Levels

Stress, especially psychological stress, can be acute or chronic.

Patients with COPD typically have chronic stress, which can have negative effects on health. Chronic stress can weaken the immune system as well as lead to anxiety, irritability, and depression, which can lead to more frequent flares of COPD symptoms. In fact, individuals with COPD were 85 percent more likely to develop anxiety and twice as likely to develop depression compared to those who didn’t have COPD. As a result, an important aspect of COPD treatment is managing stress levels.

If you have COPD, the following may be helpful in managing your stress levels:

  • Trying relaxation techniques, including practicing mindfulness, meditation, or deep breathing;
  • Getting restful sleep, such as avoiding naps, alcohol and caffeine before bed, and work or TV in the bedroom;
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet;
  • Getting regular exercise, and;
  • Having a well-developed support system, as you may need occasional assistance with your activities of daily living.


Diet is another key component to managing your COPD, as it can increase the quality of your life.

If you are overweight, a healthy, well-balanced diet along with regular exercise will boost your energy levels and stimulate weight loss. If you are underweight, a proper diet will allow you to meet those increased caloric requirements that come along with having COPD as well as help with weight gain. In addition, adequate hydration is important, because it keeps your mucus thin, making it easier to cough up and out.

A consult from a nutritionist or dietician may be helpful as far as choosing foods that are good for COPD and avoiding foods that are bad for COPD.

Foods that are Good for COPD

A diet with higher amounts of fat and lower amounts of carbohydrates (i.e., a ketogenic diet) may be the best if you have COPD. Reason being, a reduced carbohydrate diet results in the lower production of carbon dioxide, which is a gas that is detrimental at high levels in those with COPD. Nevertheless, if you decide to embark on a reduced carbohydrate diet, you still need to include a variety of healthy foods.

Foods that are good for COPD include:

  • Plenty of High-Quality Lean Protein: As most individuals with COPD have a general protein deficiency, grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry and eggs, and fatty fish (e.g., salmon, tuna, and trout) are good choices.
  • A Modicum of Whole Grains: Whole grains, such as brown rice, oats, and quinoa, are complex carbohydrates, which are much better for you than simple, refined carbohydrates, like white bread.
  • Splurge with Some Healthy Fats: Omega-3 fatty acids — including nuts, eggs, olive oil, coconut oil, nut butter, avocados, and fatty fish like salmon — and poly- and monounsaturated fats, as opposed to saturated animal fats or hydrogenated fats, are excellent choices.
  • Plenty of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: Fresh fruits and vegetables are chock full of essential vitamins and minerals as well as fiber that are not only good for COPD but also for your overall health.

Foods that are Bad for COPD

Foods that are bad for COPD include:

  • Salt: Too much salt can lead to water retention, which can make it more difficult to breathe.
  • Dairy Products: For some with COPD, dairy products may lead to thickening of mucus, which can contribute to breathing difficulties.
  • Caffeine: It is recommended to limit or avoid caffeine — so tea, soda, coffee, energy drinks, and even chocolate — all together as it can adversely interact with your COPD medications.
  • Alcohol: It is recommended to limit or avoid alcoholic beverages due to its propensity to adversely interact with your COPD medications, slow down your breathing, and thicken your mucus — all of which could be detrimental to COPD.
  • Fried Foods: Fried foods can lead to gas and indigestion, which may affect your breathing.

Breathing Exercises for COPD

Unfortunately, the symptoms of COPD — especially shortness of breath — tend to get worse with time. This is why mastering some basic breathing exercises can help you better manage your COPD symptoms.

Not only do they increase the oxygen in your blood, but they can also help lessen any anxiety/stress you might feel. The following five exercises can be especially useful for individuals with COPD:

  1. Pursed lip breathing;
  2. Diaphragmatic breathing;
  3. Coordinated breathing;
  4. Huff cough, and;
  5. Deep breathing.

Also, talk to your doctor about pulmonary rehabilitation, which can teach you these different methods of breathing.

Natural Treatments

As of late, there has been renewed interest in the use of natural, or alternative, treatments for COPD. Some natural treatments that may reduce symptoms of COPD include:

  • Vitamin D supplementation;
  • Omega-3 fatty acids;
  • essential amino acids, such as L-carnitine;
  • antioxidants;
  • Essential oils, such as eucalyptus oil and orange oil;
  • Herbal remedies, including curcumin and Asian ginseng.

Common Medicines for COPD Treatment

Although COPD is incurable, early treatment/intervention can change the course of the disease. There are three goals for the treatment of COPD. They include controlling your symptoms, reducing your risk of complications and exacerbations, and improving your quality of life.

In addition to smoking cessation, you may be prescribed medications to combat your COPD symptoms. Medications used to treat COPD include short- and long-acting bronchodilators, inhaled steroids, combination (bronchodilator plus steroid) inhalers, oral steroids, and a phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitor.


Bronchodilators relax the muscles in your airways to facilitate easier breathing.

Examples of short-acting bronchodilators include:

  • Albuterol (Ventolin);
  • Levalbuterol (Xopenex);
  • Ipratropium (Atrovent), and;
  • Albuterol/ipratropium (Combivent).

The side effects of short-acting bronchodilators may include dry mouth, headache, cough, tremors, anxiety, and a fast heartbeat.

Examples of long-acting bronchodilators include:

  • Tiotropium (Spiriva);
  • Salmeterol (Serevent);
  • Formoterol (Foradil), and;
  • Indacaterol (Arcapta).

Long-acting bronchodilators can be taken once or twice daily. Their side effects may include dry mouth, dizziness, tremors, runny nose, throat irritation, and upset stomach.

Inhaled Steroids

Inhaled steroids reduce inflammation in the airways and are very useful in those with severe COPD symptoms or frequent flares. Budesonide (Pulmicort) and fluticasone (Flovent) and are examples of inhaled steroids.

A common side effect of inhaled steroids is oral thrush, which is why washing your mouth out after their use is recommended.

Combination Inhalers

At times, a combination inhaler may be added to your treatment plan. Formoterol and budesonide (Symbicort) and salmeterol and fluticasone (Advair) are examples of combination inhalers.

Oral Steroids

Short courses of oral steroids — no more than two weeks — may be appropriate for people with moderate/severe exacerbations of COPD. Due to their serious side effects, such as weight gain, diabetes, osteoporosis, cataracts and an increased risk of infection, the long-term use of oral steroids is highly discouraged.

Phosphodiesterase-4 Inhibitor

Roflumilast (Daliresp), a phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitor, is a newer agent for those with severe symptoms of COPD.


Despite there being no cure for COPD, you can still have an acceptable quality of life. You can accomplish this goal by managing your triggers, maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress levels, well-balanced diet, and taking both natural and prescription medication.

Sharon Dominick / Getty Images

Jun 27, 2019