Geriatrics Program

Stay Healthy and Breathe Easier About COPD

Virginia Cummings, MD, Geriatrics Program Director, Milton Hospital

Long, sleepless nights.  Never catching your breath.  Another visit to the emergency room.  It’s the lifestyle that so many COPD sufferers have come to know, and as time goes by, it only becomes more familiar.

COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is a debilitating condition that makes it difficult to breathe.  Common triggers include smoking, chronic asthma or bronchitis, exposure to toxic air, irritating fumes or dust, or simply your genetic makeup.  COPD tends to worsen as we age, and must be closely monitored by you and your physician in order to keep it under control.

The most recognizable forms of COPD include emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and each form can lead to different types of symptoms.  Emphysema results in shortness of breath, wheezing and chest tightness.  Those suffering from chronic bronchitis often need to vigorously clear their throat in the morning, and may have a chronic cough, shortness of breath and frequent respiratory infections.

If you’re one of the 16 million Americans living with COPD, here are a few steps you can take to keep your oxygen flowing freely:

First and foremost, if you smoke, quit immediately!  Ask your doctor to recommend a smoking cessation program, and involve your family and friends in your decision.  Ask them to help keep you on track.

Help your lungs cope with your condition by practicing new breathing techniques.  A pulmonary rehabilitation specialist can help train you to better “catch” your breath.  You can also learn new methods for everyday activities, such as standing and sitting, in less exerting ways.

Don’t forget about overall health and fitness.  Maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise.  Get a good night’s sleep to prepare your body to fight off infection – when coupled with COPD, a respiratory infection can lead to hospitalization, or in some cases, can be deadly.  As an added protection, if it’s flu season, be sure to get a flu shot.

Know your triggers.  For example, if you suffer from seasonal allergies, stay ahead of the curve with antihistamines or other prescribed treatments.   If you’re working outside, wear a mask to keep your lungs clear of dust and other airborne particles.  Be sure to maintain a dust-free environment, and if your home is particularly dry, consider using a humidifier.

Keep your physician informed of your breathing condition.  As symptoms change, treatment plans may have to follow suit.  Patients with more advanced cases of COPD may receive ongoing oxygen therapy to improve airflow to the lungs, steroids to quickly reduce inflammation during an attack, or antibiotics to fight an infection.

COPD is one of the most common causes of frequent hospital readmissions. Left untreated, it can worsen very quickly.  But by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and alerting your doctor to any changes in your health, you can breathe a little easier about your COPD!