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Lifestyle Changes to Improve COPD Symptoms, Quality of Life

For people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma or emphysema, oftentimes trouble breathing can make even the simplest of tasks difficult to complete.

While unfortunately there is no cure for these conditions, learning to live with the disease and manage symptoms is a key aspect of treatment and care. Living with COPD will never be easy. However, by making a few simple lifestyle changes, patients can ease breathing, reduce exacerbations and improve their overall quality of life.

Quit Smoking

For patients who have recently been diagnosed with COPD or other chronic lung conditions, the first step to improving symptoms is quitting smoking. With tobacco smoke as the number one risk factor for COPD, quitting smoking will slow the progression of the disease and lessen the toll that it takes on the body.

“While I am not saying that it is easy, quitting smoking will provide a big improvement to lifestyle factors,” said Gina Kaurich, RN, Executive Director of Client Care Services, FirstLight HomeCare, an in-home care network based in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Removing yourself from situations where others are smoking will also provide relief. This is the biggest thing that those diagnosed with COPD should do.”

While quitting should be a top priority, if COPD patients find that they cannot quit, steps should be taken to at least reduce the number of packs smoked per week.

Avoid Air Pollutants

In addition to avoiding cigarette smoke, COPD patients should also avoid air pollutants such as dust, pollen, environmental smoke and chemicals such as insecticides and household cleaners. Lotions or sprays such as sunscreen and bug spray can also exacerbate symptoms.

“People should be very cognizant of their environment and how their breathing is affected by these irritants,” said Kaurich. “Maybe they are experiencing shortness of breath, or maybe it’s just coughing. If this occurs, it is best to move back from that situation.”

Checking the pollen count before going outdoors can also be helpful, as this will help to gauge when it is best to stay indoors. As can avoiding overly humid or dry air as this can often create difficulties breathing.

“Being a respiratory disease, COPD can be affected by so many things and it starts with the seasons – the spring pollen and overly humid or dry air – these all affect breathing,” said Kaurich. “The media has really helped by providing the pollen count and suggestions on when it is best to stay indoors based on the air condition.”

Finally, COPD patients should avoid dusting at all costs, as this kicks pollutants into the air and can cause acute exacerbations.

Maintain a Social Life

While avoiding air pollutants can often leave COPD patients indoors, maintaining a social life should also be a key consideration.

“For some people, in the summer when it’s humid and difficult to breathe, they are going to lock themselves up in their home with air conditioning, but they need to remember the psychology impact of the disease. Socialization is necessary,” said Kaurich. “Get out with family and friends and interact with people.”

To avoid trouble breathing during these times, it is best to reduce environment exposure.

“Go from the air conditioned house to an air conditioned car quickly. And have someone get the car cool before you get in,” said Kaurich. “While these conditions can impact every aspect of life, it is important to keep living.”

Keep a Journal

Lastly, those living with chronic lung conditions should keep a journal of their symptoms. This should include information such as those environmental conditions they faced and how they affected their breathing for each day.

“Much of learning to improve symptoms is a matter of experimenting,” said Kaurich. “Maybe for one person in a certain time of year campfire smoke will bother them. But it may happen again with a different type of wood and this will not affect them. It’s really about catching these symptoms early and learning what causes problems and what does not.”

By journaling, COPD patients will become more aware of what affects their breathing and learn to avoid these irritants in the future.

Consult a Physician

While many of these improvements only require mild changes, speaking with a physician before implementing them is recommended. Further, patients should speak with their physician before they put themselves in situations where irritants may be present, as they may have suggestions regarding how to handle the situation. 

“It’s important for those people living with the disease to remember that this affects their breathing, which is essential to life,” said Kaurich. “Improving symptoms and reducing the chance of exacerbations is key to improving quality of life.”

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