Your lifestyle plays a critical role in the treatment of COPD. By making certain lifestyle changes, you may be able to reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life. Your doctor may recommend that you participate in a pulmonary rehabilitation program. This will incorporate many of these lifestyle changes into a comprehensive program which includes the support of your peers.

General Guidelines for Managing COPD

  Quit Smoking

Quitting smoking slows the progression of COPD. Doctors consider quitting smoking the most important aspect of treatment. Patches and prescription pills are available to treat your addiction to smoking. Programs are available that use behavior modification techniques and medications to help you gradually taper off cigarettes. Quitting smoking may reduce your risk of dying from COPD. No other treatment can give you this benefit.

  Exercise Regularly

Regular physical activity builds endurance and promotes an overall sense of well-being. Follow your doctor’s recommendations for activity levels and possible restrictions. In addition, special breathing exercises and methods of breathing can strengthen chest muscles and make breathing easier.

  Eat a Healthful Diet

Excess weight causes the lungs and heart to work harder, which they are already doing because of COPD. For some people with COPD, the extra work of breathing can make eating enough food difficult. This can result in weight loss.

Eating habits to consider with COPD:

  • Eat a healthful diet. It should be low in saturated fat. It should also be rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods.
  • Maintain a normal weight. Excess weight causes the lungs and heart to work harder.
  • It may be hard to eat because you feel full. Try eating several smaller meals during the day instead of a few large meals.
  • Slow down your eating pace. This will make it easier to breathe.
  • The extra work of breathing increases your calorie need.
    • If you need to gain weight, add food or drinks throughout the day.
    • Talk to a dietitian about how many calories you need each day.

  Avoid Close Contact with People Who Have Respiratory Infections

Respiratory infections can make the symptoms of COPD much worse. These include colds and the flu. Whenever possible, try to avoid close contact with people who have these contagious infections. It is recommended that those with COPD get a pneumonia vaccination and yearly flu shots.

  Avoid Excessive Heat, Cold, and Very High Altitudes

Extreme cold can cause the airways to narrow. Excessive heat can also stress the heart and lungs. Air conditioning in the hot summer months can make breathing easier. Oxygen pressure is much lower at high altitudes, which makes breathing difficult. This could affect you if you are traveling through mountainous regions. In addition, commercial aircraft generally maintain cabin pressure equal to an elevation of 5,000 to 10,000 feet. This can make breathing very difficult if you have severe COPD. If you are going to fly, talk to your doctor about the use of supplemental oxygen.

  Avoid Exposure to Environmental Irritants

Try to avoid dust and fumes. Avoid all exposure to cigarette smoke. Be aware of air pollution alerts. Avoid outdoor activities when air quality is particularly poor. If you exercise, avoid doing so in areas where levels of car exhaust are high.

  Learn Breathing Techniques

Breathing techniques are also known as breathing retraining. They include diaphragmatic breathing or pursed-lip breathing. These can help relieve symptoms of shortness of breath, make you breathe more efficiently, and feel more comfortable. A respiratory therapist may be able to teach these kinds of techniques.

  Practice Relaxation Techniques

Learn relaxation techniques and other methods to manage stress. These may help reduce shortness of breath and concern about difficulty breathing. Anxiety increases the rate of respiration. This makes breathing more strenuous. Seek emotional support from professionals, family, friends, and other persons with COPD. Ask your healthcare provider which stress management techniques are appropriate for you.

When to Contact Your Doctor

Contact your doctor if:

  • You need assistance with quitting smoking
  • You experience increased difficulty breathing, especially if this occurs suddenly
  • You need help determining the right level of exercise
  • You have difficulty eating or experience marked, unplanned changes in body weight
  • You develop a respiratory infection that is further compromising your lung function
  • You need advice on traveling or need more information about supplemental oxygen
  • You need help relaxing or are interested in joining a COPD support group

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12/14/2009 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance Donesky-Cuenco D, Nguyen HQ, Paul S, Carrieri-Kohlman V. Yoga therapy decreases dyspnea-related distress and improves functional performance in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2009;15(3):225-234.

Last reviewed March 2018 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP