Managing your Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can affect many parts of your life. But there are some ways to help reduce its impact. 

Take your medicines

It's important to take any prescribed medicines. These include inhalers, as they can help prevent your condition getting worse (flare-up).

Read the information leaflet that comes with your medication. This will explain what will happen if you take this medication with other medicines or supplements.

Check with your doctor (this could be your GP or a hospital doctor) if you plan to take any over-the-counter remedies. For example, painkillers or nutritional supplements. These can sometimes cause problems with your medication.

Speak to your doctor if:

  • you have any concerns about the medication you're taking
  • you're experiencing any side effects

Stop smoking

If you smoke, stopping can help slow down or stop further damage to your lungs.

Get help to stop smoking

Exercise regularly

Exercising can help improve your symptoms and quality of life.

The amount of exercise you can do will differ from person to person. Exercising until you're a little breathless isn't dangerous. But don't push yourself too far.

Talk to your GP before starting a new exercise programme. This is important if your symptoms are severe or you have not exercised in a while.

Your GP may advise you to take part in a pulmonary rehabilitation programme. This will include a structured exercise plan tailored to your needs and ability.

COPD Support Ireland have local support groups who meet weekly for exercise classes or virtual exercise classes for people not able to travel to on.

Find your local support group or call 086 0415 228 to find your local exercise class.

Maintain a healthy weight

Carrying extra weight can make shortness of breath worse. You can lose weight through a combination of regular exercise and a healthy diet.

Some people with COPD find that they lose weight without trying to. Eating food high in protein and taking in enough calories is important to maintain a healthy weight.

You may be able to get advice from a dietitian as part of the pulmonary rehabilitation programme.

Get vaccinated

COPD can put a significant strain on your body and mean you're more vulnerable to infections.

Everyone with COPD should have the annual flu vaccination and the pneumococcal vaccination.

You can get these vaccinations at your GP or a local pharmacy.

Check the weather

Periods of cold and hot weather and humidity can cause breathing problems if you have COPD.

Check the weather forecast on the Met Eireann website

Watch what you breathe in

Breathing in some things can make COPD symptoms worse.

Try to avoid:

  • dusty places
  • fumes, such as car exhausts
  • smoke
  • air freshener sprays or plug-ins
  • strong-smelling cleaning products (unless there is good ventilation)
  • hairspray
  • perfume

Regular reviews and monitoring

You'll have regular contact with your care team to check your condition.

These appointments may involve:

  • talking about your symptoms – if they're affecting your normal activities or getting worse
  • talking about your medicine – including if you are experiencing any side effects
  • tests to check your health

It's also a good opportunity to ask any questions you have or raise any other issues you'd like to discuss.

Tell your doctor if your symptoms get worse or you develop new symptoms between check-ups.

Breathing techniques

There are different breathing techniques you may find helpful for shortness of breath.

These include breathing control. This involves breathing gently using the least amount of effort, with the shoulders supported. This can help when people with COPD feel short of breath.

Breathing techniques for people who are more active include:

  • relaxed, slow, deep breathing
  • breathing through pursed lips, as if whistling
  • breathing out hard when doing an activity that needs a big effort
  • paced breathing, using a rhythm in time with the activity, such as climbing stairs

If you have a chesty cough that produces a lot of phlegm, you may be taught a technique to help clear your airways.

Read more about learning to control your breathing

Energy saving and shortness of breath

Saving or conserving your energy can help if you have shortness of breath.

Saving your energy means that you can focus on the things that are most important to you.

Ways of saving energy may include:

  • finding an easier way to carry out everyday tasks
  • getting the most activity done using the least amount of energy

Plan to do your tasks when you have the most energy. For some people, morning is best for them. Spread work out over the week

Work at a moderate pace and take regular short breaks. When you start to feel tired you should slow down, pause, stop or rest. This will help your body to recover. You can re-start the activity after a short rest.

Prioritise some of your energy for your hobbies or interests. It's important to continue to do the things that you enjoy.

How you use your body will help save energy. The main things to avoid are bending and stooping. Use long handled-aids to help you if you need to. Try to do less lifting.

Talk to others

Some people find it helpful to talk to other people who have COPD.

The COPD Support Ireland Adviceline is a freephone service for people with COPD.

Freephone: 1800 83 21 46 Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm to arrange a call back from a respiratory nurse specialist. They will chat with you about the steps you can take to live well with COPD.

Read more about supports available from COPD Support Ireland

Self-care plan for COPD

It’s important to look after your health and wellbeing, with support from your team of health professionals.

This COPD self-care plan will help you manage your COPD better, especially if you have a flare-up of your symptoms.

Try to have a communication card and self-management plan.

Download a:

Your doctor (this could be your GP or hospital doctor), nurse or physiotherapist will go through this with you. It may help to discuss the plan with your family or carer.

You can reduce the chance of a flare-up by taking your medication regularly and treating it promptly.

COPD Self-management advice

If you're having a good day

You should be able to carry out your usual activities. Your phlegm should be a normal colour and amount.

Continue with your medications as prescribed and continue your day as normal. Keep as active as possible.

If you're having a bad day

On a bad day your COPD may be bothering you. For example, you may be more short of breath than usual.

You should:

If you're feeling unwell

If you're feeling unwell you may be more wheezy or short of breath. You may have more phlegm that is yellow or green in colour.

You should:

  • take your normal medications and inhalers
  • take your reliever medication every 4 to 6 hours
  • start your rescue antibiotics and steroids if your doctor has prescribed them
  • contact your GP or COPD outreach service for advice
If you're feeling very unwell

Feeling very unwell means your reliever and rescue prescription are not helping .

You should:

  • contact your GP or Out of Hours GP service straight away
  • go to the hospital emergency department if you cannot see your GP

Immediate action required: Call 112 or 999 and ask for an ambulance if:

  • you are short of breath at rest
  • have chest pain or confusion

This is an emergency.

Relationships and sex

Relationships with friends and family

Having a long-term illness such as COPD can put a strain on any relationship.

Difficulty breathing and coughing can make you feel tired and depressed.

Your spouse, partner or carer may also have concerns about your health. It's important to talk about your worries together.

Being open about how you feel and what your family and friends can do to help may put them at ease. But don't feel shy about telling them that you need some time to yourself if that's what you want.

Your sex life

As COPD progresses, it can be difficult to take part in strenuous activities. Shortness of breath can happen during sexual activity. This may mean your sex life can suffer.

Talk to your partner and stay open-minded. Explore what you both like. Touching, being touched and being close to someone helps a person feel loved.

Your doctor or physiotherapist may be able to suggest ways to help manage shortness of breath during sex.

Air travel and COPD

Before travelling, pack all your medication in your hand luggage.

If you're using oxygen therapy, tell your travel operator and airline before you book your holiday.

Airlines generally do not allow you to bring oxygen cylinders with you. But they do allow other portable oxygen concentrator devices.

You may need a new prescription from your doctor for oxygen abroad so leave enough time to arrange this. Make sure you have enough oxygen for your flight and for your time abroad.

Read more about travelling with oxygen on the COPD Support Ireland website

End of life care

COPD is a serious condition that can eventually reach a stage where it becomes life-threatening.

It can be difficult to talk about dying with your doctor and particularly with family and friends. But many people find it helps. Support is also available for your family and friends.

It may be helpful to discuss the symptoms and treatments you may have as you become more seriously ill.

Read more about talking to someone about what's troubling you

As COPD progresses, your doctor should work with you to make a clear management plan based on your wishes. This will include where you want to be looked after as you become more ill. You may prefer to go to hospital or a hospice, or be looked after at home.

Living will

You may want to discuss writing an advance decision, also called a 'living will'. This sets out your wishes for treatment if you become too ill to be consulted.

This might include if you want to be resuscitated if you stop breathing and if you want artificial ventilation to be continued.

Read or download the Irish Hospice Foundation booklet 'Planning for the future with COPD' (PDF,896KB, 44 pages)

Contact COPD Support Ireland on 1800 832 146 for printed versions of this booklet.