Imagine trying to breathe through a small narrow straw with a clothespin on your nose. Now add in exhaustion, chest pain, and brain fog. This is what it feels like if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). COPD is an umbrella term used for a group of progressive lung diseases that reduce airflow and make it hard to breathe. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two most common forms of COPD, and they often occur together. Although there is no cure for COPD, there are many things you can do to help manage the condition. (9)
Did you know? COPD affects more than 16 million Americans, making it a leading cause of death in the United States. (18)
What is COPD?
COPD is a condition in which the airways in the lungs become inflamed and the lung tissue responsible for exchanging oxygen is destroyed, making it difficult to breathe. The airways also make more mucus than they need to function, further reducing airflow. As the disease progresses, shortness of breath makes it hard to stay active. (7) Since COPD develops over time, it typically doesn’t occur until after a person turns 40. (19)
The biggest risk factor for COPD is cigarette smoking, which is responsible for at least 75% of all COPD cases. (26) Studies suggest that other risk factors include exposure to air pollution and second-hand smoke, which may explain why COPD can also develop in nonsmokers. (13)(15)
Early stages of COPD may not present with any symptoms. Even when symptoms develop, they can be mild and easy to ignore until severe lung damage occurs. These include:
- Frequent cough
- Needing to clear your throat habitually
- Occasional shortness of breath, especially during exercise (19)
As the disease progresses, the following symptoms can become more persistent. This may cause you to make changes to your everyday activities.
- Chest tightness
- Chronic cough, often called a “smoker’s cough”
- Excess mucus production
- Increased susceptibility to colds or other respiratory infections
- Inability to take a deep breath
- Lack of energy
- Shortness of breath, even after mild exertion like climbing stairs
- Wheezing (19)
Treatment can help manage symptoms and improve the quality of life in people with COPD. Medications called bronchodilators can relax airway muscles (4) and glucocorticosteroids can reduce lung inflammation. (11) In more severe cases, oxygen may be required to support breathing. Surgery to remove the damaged area of the lungs is another option in some people with very severe COPD. (2)
4. Healthy habits to ease COPD symptoms
Your day-to-day habits can also help you manage your symptoms. Here are four of the best ways to stay healthy and active with COPD.
1. If you smoke, quit
Continuing to smoke after a diagnosis of COPD speeds up how quickly the disease damages the lungs. (25) On the other hand, a study of a group of former smokers with COPD found that quitting led to improved lung function and survival rates. (24) There are many tools, from counseling to medication to nicotine replacement products, that can help you quit. Speak to your practitioner for more information about smoking cessation.
Did you know? If you don’t succeed in your first attempt to quit smoking, keep trying. Studies show that repeated efforts can boost your odds of quitting permanently. (6)
2. Focus on healthy foods
Proper nutrition is important for every person, including those diagnosed with COPD. Maintaining a healthy diet not only improves lung function, but it can also help maintain a strong immune system. (8)(21) Start by replacing processed foods with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats.
Since oxidative stress caused by cigarette smoke and airborne pollutants plays a key role in COPD, research suggests increasing the amount of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables you eat. One prospective study involving 120 COPD patients found that those who ate more fruits and vegetables experienced better lung function. (14)
Another study of 13,651 people reported that increased fruit and whole grain intake was associated with reduced symptoms, while consuming a moderate amount of alcohol, one to two drinks per day, was associated with improved forced expiratory volume (the amount of air you can forcibly blow out in the first second after taking a breath). (23) The American Lung Association recommends rounding out your diet with plenty of high-quality protein and healthy fats. (1)
Furthermore, diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce low-level chronic inflammation throughout the body, including in the lungs and airways. Research shows that omega-3s may reduce chronic cough and wheezing, (16) shortness of breath, and markers indicating inflammation. (17) Top sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish (e.g., salmon, sardines, mackerel), flaxseeds, and chia seeds. (20)
3. Exercise according to your ability
Since physical activity can be exhausting, you may be tempted to avoid exercise if you have COPD. However, studies show that the less active you are, the faster your health will decline. One small clinical trial published in the journal BMC Pulmonary Medicine compared a group of people with moderate COPD who worked out with a trainer at a local gym to a group of unsupervised COPD patients who maintained their normal activities. After 12 weeks, those participating in the supervised endurance and strength workouts were able to remain active longer. They also experienced an increase in their muscle strength. The unsupervised group, however, didn’t experience any benefits. (3)
Not up for the gym? Other studies show that simply walking regularly can also improve endurance and quality of life. It’s so effective that researchers from National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, cited a 50% drop in hospitalization for COPD patients who walked at least 60 minutes per day. (5)
4. Avoid respiratory irritants
Cigarette smoke isn’t the only thing people with COPD need to avoid. It’s also wise to limit your exposure to other airborne pollutants like smog, dust, or household cleaning products. Studies show that people who are routinely exposed to chemically-based disinfectants and other cleaning products at home or work have a higher risk of developing COPD. (10)(22) Opt instead for safer natural cleaning ingredients such as vinegar or baking soda.
The bottom line
The easiest way to prevent COPD is to avoid smoking. If you are living with COPD, adopting these healthy strategies can help minimize the symptoms of this progressive disease, so you can breathe a little easier.
- American Lung Association. Nutrition and COPD. www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/copd/living-with-copd/nutrition.html
- American Thoracic Society. Surgery for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. (2019). www.thoracic.org/patients/patient-resources/resources/surgery-for-COPD.pdf
- Amin S, Abrazado M, Quinn M, et al. (2014). A controlled study of community-based exercise training in patients with moderate COPD. BMC Pulmonary Medicine. 14,125.
- Asche CV, Leader S, Plauschinat C, et al. Adherence to current guidelines for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) among patients treated with combination of long-acting bronchodilators or inhaled corticosteroids. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2012;7:201‐209.
- Bender BG, Depew MA, Emmett A, et al. (2016). A patient-centered walking program for COPD. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases: Journal of the COPD Foundation. 3(4), 769-777.
- Bold KW, Rasheed AS, McCarthy DE, et al. (2015). Rates and predictors of renewed quitting after relapse during a one-year follow-up among primary care patients. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. 49(1),128-140.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COPD. www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/diseases/copd.html
- Childs, C. E., Calder, P. C., & Miles, E. A. (2019). Diet and immune function. Nutrients, 11(8), 1933. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6723551/
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Medlineplus Medical Encyclopedia https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000091.htm.
- Dumas O, Varraso R, Boggs KM, et al. (2019). Association of occupational exposure to disinfectants with incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among US female nurses. JAMA Network Open. 2(10), e1913563.
- Graf J, Jörres RA, Lucke T, et al. (2018). Medical treatment of COPD. Deutsches Arzteblatt International. 115(37), 599-605.
- Hansel N, McCormack MC, Kim V. (2016). The effects of air pollution and temperature on COPD. COPD. 13(3),372-379.
- Kc, R., Shukla, S. D., Gautam, S. S., Hansbro, P. M., & O’Toole, R. F. (2018). The role of environmental exposure to non-cigarette smoke in lung disease. Clinical and translational medicine, 7(1), 39.
- Keranis E, Makris D, Rodopoulou P, et al. (2010). Impact of dietary shift to higher-antioxidant foods in COPD: a randomised trial. European Respiratory Journal. 36, 774-780.
- Lee PN, Forey BA, Coombs KJ, et al. (2018). Epidemiological evidence relating environmental smoke to COPD in lifelong non-smokers: A systematic review. F1000 Research. 7, 146.
- Lemoine S CM, Brigham EP, Woo H, et al. (2019). Omega-3 fatty acid intake and prevalent respiratory symptoms among U.S. adults with COPD. BMC Pulmonary Medicine. 19(1), 97.
- Lemoine S CM, Brigham EP, Woo H, et al. (2019). Omega-3 fatty acids intake reduces COPD morbidity. Annals of the American Thoracic Society. Published online ahead of print.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. COPD National Action Plan. www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/education-and-awareness/COPD-national-action-plan
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2021). COPD. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/copd
- Office of Dietary Supplements. (2021). Omega-3 fatty acids. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/
- Romieu I. (2005). Nutrition and lung health. The international journal of tuberculosis and lung disease : the official journal of the International Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, 9(4), 362–374. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15830741/
- Svanes Ø, Bertelsen RJ, Lygre SHL, et al. (2018). Cleaning at home and at work in relation to lung function decline and airway obstruction. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. 197(9), 1157-1163.
- Tabak C, Smit HA, Heederik D, et al. (2001). Diet and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: independent beneficial effects of fruits, whole grains, and alcohol (the MORGEN study). 31(5), 747-755.
- Tønnesen P. (2013). Smoking cessation and COPD. European Respiratory Review. 127, 37-43.
- Vij N, Chandramani-Shivallingappa P, Westphal V, et al. (2016). Cigarette smoke-induced autophagy impairment accelerates lung-aging, COPD-emphysema exacerbations and pathogenesis. American Journal of Physiology. Cell Physiology. 314(1), C73-C87.
- Wheaton AG, Liu Y, Croft JB, et al. (2019). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and smoking status—United States, 2017. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 68(24), 533-538.