A few years back, one of the Harvard Medical School publications put out a “10 Tips for Coping with Chronic Illness” piece. I thought it might be helpful to adapt their advice to coping with COPD, as COPD is a chronic, long-term condition.
When you have something acute, such as the common cold, the flu, a bug bite or poison ivy, it can be annoying and you may feel awful. However, you know that it will eventually pass and you’ll feel better. But when you have a chronic condition like COPD, it’s not ever going away. In fact, you can expect that as the years move on, your health will deteriorate further. And that can be tough to take. But, you CAN adapt, take charge of managing your COPD and still live a positive life for much longer by paying attention to the following tips.
1. Learn everything you can about COPD. The best ammunition for managing a chronic condition like COPD is to understand what it is, how it affects you and what your options are for treatment. Start with your doctor and/or doctor’s health professionals, such as registered nurses on staff. Ask questions; don’t let them put you off because they are busy. You have the right to get answers
Read and learn about COPD and its treatment. Just make sure that the information you’re getting is reputable. There is a lot of misinformation about health, especially on the Internet. This HealthCentral website can be trusted, as can most hospital websites and organizations such as the American Lung Association. Your doctor’s office may have pamphlets you can get or ask them to recommend specific books you could read about COPD.
2. Think of your doctor as your teammate – not your boss – in COPD management. Your doctor is a health and disease expert, but YOU are the expert when it comes to your own body. Listen to your body and keep an ongoing record of changes, of how you respond to treatment and your symptoms.
You and your healthcare professionals both have equal responsibility (and the right!) to evaluate treatment options and to take control of your COPD. Work together on your treatment plan. Maintain open lines of communication with your doctor, or if that’s not possible, then think about finding a different doctor, perhaps a specialist in respiratory care.
3. Expand your COPD management team. Your primary care physician is not necessarily your be all or end all when it comes to managing every aspect of your health. You might want to consult periodically with a respiratory specialist, if your regular doctor is a generalist.
Sometimes a nurse is a better resource for learning about COPD. Or, if you’re trying to lose weight to lighten the load on your respiratory system, you might consult with a nutritionist or a fitness expert. An occupational therapist can help you adapt your home for better energy conservation. The pharmacist may be more knowledgeable than anyone about what kinds of side effects to expect from your medications or in how your COPD meds might interact with other medications you are taking.
Lastly, your family is an important part of your care team. They are your support system and they should also know about your treatment plan, so they can help you in case of an emergency.
4. Push for coordination of your healthcare. COPD is probably not the only medical condition you are dealing with, particularly if you are an older adult. You might be seeing different physicians for different reasons. Make sure they are aware of each other and your varying plans of care. This is where a primary care physician can be helpful.
5. Invest in an all around healthy lifestyle. Whether you have chronic health issues or not, you will always benefit from making healthy living choices. Making these changes isn’t always easy if you already have COPD, but the benefits are great. If you smoke, stop, and if family members smoke, then support them in making the choice to stop as well. You will all benefit.
Live as active life as you possibly can. Experts recommend we all get at least 30 minutes of exercise 5 to 6 days a week. This can be as simple as walking, or you might try something like swimming at your local YMCA. The important thing is just to get and stay as active as you can for as long as you can. Train your body to be as fit as it can be, given your damaged airways.
Make healthy food choices. Drink lots of water, opt for low fat, low sugar foods. Go for whole grains and eat 9 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. When you eat healthy and get active, chances are, if you were overweight, you will start to see your weight move towards your healthy range.
Finally, get 6 to 8 hours of sleep every night and try to reduce the amount of stress in your life. And, of course, avoid overindulgence in alcohol or the use of non-medicinal drugs.
6. Get your family involved! It will be easier for all of you to invest in a healthy lifestyle if you do it together. And everyone will benefit too. As I mentioned above, it’s also important to involve your family in your care too. Communication is the key. Tell them what you need and how they can help you. Help them to understand what it’s like to live with COPD on a day to day basis.
7. Know & understand your medications. Medication errors and omissions are some of the main reasons why chronic illnesses are not always successfully controlled. COPD sufferers can benefit greatly from the proper medication regimen, which may also include supplemental oxygen. Very few of us like the idea of being on medication or being hooked up to an oxygen tank, but when you have COPD, it is often the key to optimal health and quality of life.
7. Learn about your medications. Find out the best time to take them and how to use any special devices you may have, such as a DPI inhaler, a nebulizer, etc. Ask your doctor or his/her staff to observe you and offer tips for improvement. Follow a strict schedule for your medications. Consistency is a big key to effectiveness. Keep notes on how you feel before and after you take your medications and discuss your observations with your doctor on each visit, so that your care plan can be tweaked and adjusted as needed.
8. Beware of the blues. When you have a chronic health issue, it’s easy to get down in the dumps now and then. With time and a little TLC, most people bounce back from those episodes. But real depression is quite common with chronic conditions too. And it can prevent you from taking your medications or doing the things you need to do to keep your COPD under control.
Know the symptoms of depression and reach out to your doctor if you think you might be dealing with depression. There is always help, if you need it. Depression is not a sign of weakness; it’s just another health issue that needs to be dealt with if you want to lead a happy, healthy life.
9. Reach out to others. COPD is not an unusual condition, and you do not have to go it alone! There may be support groups of other COPD sufferers in your local area and/or online. Seek them out.
Connecting with others who know firsthand what you are going through can be so helpful, for both parties. Depending on your needs, you can also find support groups for people trying to quit smoking, people losing weight, people dealing with depression, and so on.
10. Be a proactive healthcare consumer! This goes along with the first few tips above. You have the right and the responsibility to manage your own health. You will have ups and downs, successes and failures, but it’s important to do what you can to get back on track and to keep moving forward. Focus on the positive in your life and take action to stay in control of your COPD for as long as possible.
Also, because COPD is a progressive condition that will eventually result in your demise, you should plan for end-of-life decisions. Talk openly with your loved ones about your feelings on how aggressive care should be at the end, whether you’ll want hospice and/or prefer a do-not-resuscitate order. Put it into writing too, so there can be no question about your wishes. This will save everyone a lot of anguish and confusion when the time comes.
Kathi is an experienced consumer health education writer, with a prior career in nursing that spanned more than 30 years — much of it in the field of home health care. Over the past 15 years, she’s been an avid contributor for a number of consumer health websites, specializing in asthma, allergy, and COPD. She writes not only as a healthcare professional, but also as a lifelong sufferer of severe allergies and mild asthma, and as a caregiver for her mother with COPD.