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 medicine. This will explain what will happen if you take this medicine 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 medicine.
Non-urgent advice: Speak to your doctor if:
- you have any concerns about the medicine you're taking
- you're experiencing any side effects
If you smoke, stopping can help slow down or stop further damage to your lungs.
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 is not dangerous. But do not 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
COPD Support Ireland have local support groups who meet for weekly exercise classes. These can be online or in person.
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.
COPD can put a significant strain on your body and mean you're more vulnerable to infections.
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.
Watch what you breathe in
Breathing in some things can make COPD symptoms worse.
Try to avoid:
- dusty places
- fumes, such as car exhausts
- air freshener sprays or plug-ins
- strong-smelling cleaning products (unless there is good ventilation)
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.
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 if you 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.
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. 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.
Keep some of your energy for your hobbies or interests. It's important to continue doing 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.
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.
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 medicine regularly and treating it promptly.
COPD Self-management advice
You can manage COPD according to how you feel each day.
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 medicines 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.
- use techniques to clear your phlegm
- take your reliever inhaler
- use breathing control exercises
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.
- take your normal medicines and inhalers
- take your reliever medicine 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.
- contact your GP or Out of Hours GP service straight away
- go to the hospital emergency department if you cannot see your GP
Emergency 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.
COPD can affect your relationships with friends, family members or partners.
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 medicine 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.
End of life care
COPD is a serious condition that can eventually reach a stage where it becomes life-threatening.
It can be hard to talk about dying with your doctor, or your 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.
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.
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, or if you want artificial ventilation to be continued.
Freephone COPD Support Ireland on 1800 832 146 for printed versions of this booklet.