More than 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Almost as many may not realize that their shortness of breath and coughing are in fact symptoms of this debilitating condition.
Although such symptoms can start out as a mild annoyance, they can get worse with time. Eventually you may find yourself short of breath doing simple activities, like preparing a meal or getting dressed.
These 30 tips and tricks will help you breathe easier if you have COPD.
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Avoiding exercise is a vicious cycleshortness of breath may cause you to skip workouts, but the lack of exercise can cause lung function to drop even further.
Staying as active as possible will reduce breathing problems in the long run.
"Exercise conditions the heart, the blood vessels, and the muscles," says Norman H. Edelman, MD, the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association. "The better condition they’re in, the less oxygen is needed to get the job done. The less oxygen is needed, the less burden you put on the lungs."
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Avoid breathing-problem triggers
You can reduce flare-ups and feel better by avoiding common breathing-problem triggers like pollution, air that’s cold or humid, pet allergens, and cleaning agents.
You’ll also want to take extra precautions against getting sick with colds, the flu, and especially pneumonia.
An air conditioner or air filter in your home can help, as can cooking with a window open or a kitchen fan running. People with COPD should get a yearly flu shot.
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Changing the way you breathe can ease shortness of breath.
Pursed-lip breathing "is like breathing through a straw," says Dr. Edelman. "It can reduce the tendency for airways to collapse."
Inhale through your nose for about four seconds. Then exhale through your mouth for six to eight seconds, with your lips almost closed. This will help you breathe out more air, making room in your lungs for your next deep breath.
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Maintain a healthy diet
COPD includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, different conditions that both require healthy eating.
"The emphysema patient tends to be thin, very short of breath, and frequently malnourished," says Dr. Edelman. "It is a hypermetabolic state, and they burn a lot of calories, and the diaphragm is pressing on their stomach and they can’t really fill up."
The bronchitis patient on the other hand may be overweight, which places an extra burden on the lungs, he says.
Both subsets of COPD patients should follow healthy diet guidelines, but the severely underweight may need to beef up their diet with supplemental shakes, says Dr. Edelman.
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Breathe with your diaphragm
Breathing with your diaphragm—the large muscle separating your belly from your lungs—makes more space for your lungs to take in air.
"In COPD, the diaphragm tends to be low and frequently tends to have atrophied," says Dr. Edelman, "so whatever people can do to support it can give them a little more respiratory capacity."
To try this technique, lie on your back, or prop yourself up on pillows. Place a hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Push your belly out as you breathe in, feeling the hand there moving out.
The hand on your chest should stay still. As you exhale, the hand on your belly should move in.
Practice belly breathing lying down for 20 minutes at a time, two or three times a day, until you feel comfortable breathing like this naturally; then try it sitting or standing.
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Bending at the waist helps the diaphragm move more easily, allowing more air to fill the lungs.
You can sit or stand with this technique, as long as you lean slightly forward from the waist, keeping your back straight.
"You’ll see many people with emphysema leaning forward," says Dr. Edelman. "They bend forward and support their arms on a chair or a table and that [supports] the muscles in the shoulder that become accessory muscles of breathing, that [people who don’t have COPD] don’t use very much."
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If your doctor has prescribed medications for COPD—like an inhaler or nebulizer—make sure you know how to use them and take them as prescribed.
Most people find that medicines make breathing easier, keep flare-ups to a minimum, and control coughing and wheezing.
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COPD is often caused by smoking, so the most important thing you can immediately do to breathe easier is quit once and for all.
You won’t be able to undo all the damage, but even after years of smoking, quitting will help slow down the disease.
It is never too late to kick the habit.
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