How to Live a Full Life When You Have COPD

Health Professional

Yes, it IS possible... you CAN live a quality life, even after you've been diagnosed with COPD. I'm not saying there won't need to be changes. You have to accept the reality that your life will never be quite the same once you've been diagnosed with COPD. But that doesn't mean you need to give up on life, not by a long shot.

Living with COPD can be challenging, especially as it progresses and your activity tolerance lessens. And it can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that can further lead to feelings of isolation. But you are NOT alone and you CAN make concrete changes that will have a huge impact on your life with COPD.

I'm going to give you some suggestions that will enable you to retain (or take back) much of your independence and improve your quality of life.

Don't Isolate Yourself... Reach Out to Others

I put this first because I think it could be the most important step you can take in your efforts to live well with COPD. When you get COPD, there is a tendency for your world to shrink. It's harder to get dressed; it's harder to get out; and you may be embarrassed by your struggles to breathe or by having to lug an oxygen container everywhere you go.

But the truth is, at least 12 million people in the United States alone have COPD (and experts estimate there may be another 12 million who haven't been diagnosed yet). So you are definitely not alone. Chances are, there are others in your family, in your social group and/or in your neighborhood who also have COPD. It's nothing to be ashamed of.

There are also lots of people these days on supplemental oxygen. After my mom starting using oxygen, I was surprised to notice how many other people we'd see out in the store and restaurants on oxygen. And I'm a nurse It shouldn't have been a surprise to me.

So don't allow yourself to become a shut in. Continue to participate in as many social activities as you can tolerate, even if you don't stay as long or go as often. Talk openly with friends and family about how you feel and what kind of help or adjustments you need. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to learn how accommodating the people who care about you will be.

Stay as Physically Active as You Can

There's an old saying, "Use it or lose it", and this applies to people with COPD too. It's true, activity is harder when you feel breathless. But that doesn't mean you should resign yourself to the rocking chair and stop doing any activity. Instead, just adjust.

If you can still get outside, take a walk around the block once a day... or halfway around the block... or down to the mailbox or whatever you can tolerate. The key is to get some kind of exercise.

If you can't tolerate that much exercise, then try walking around the house every hour or two. Take breaks to rest if you need to, but just keep moving, so your muscles don't weaken and your joints don't stiffen up. If even walking that amount is beyond you, then try doing some gentle chair exercises.

The goal here is not to become an athlete, or even to greatly increase your activity tolerance. It's to prevent you from losing what conditioning you do have right now.

Manage Your Breathing

Feeling short of breath is one of the most common -- and the scariest -- symptoms of COPD. But there are ways you can learn to manage your breathing and minimize the breathlessness.

First, learn to pace your activity. If you start to feel tired or out of breath, stop what you are doing and rest for a few minutes until you feel your breathlessness start to ease. Sit down and try to relax if you can; sitting takes 25% less energy than standing, believe it or not. While you sit, lower your head and shoulders and focus on taking gradually deeper, slower breaths.

Next, learn some breathing techniques to help control breathlessness. Pursed lip breathing is one technique. The idea is you breathe in slowly through your nose, and then pursing your lips as though you were going to whistle or blow out a candle, you breathe out through your mouth. Practice doing this a few times a day, so that when   you need to do it during an episode of breathlessness, it will come natural.

Another technique is diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is a muscle in your abdomen that can aid with breathing. But in people with lung diseases, it often becomes weakened and then the muscles in the neck, shoulders and ribs are used, which doesn't work very well. So diaphragmatic breathing exercises can help strengthen the diaphragm again. Here's how:

  • Place your hand on your abdomen, just above your waist.
  • Slowly breathe in through your nose, feeling your abdomen expand out against your hand. This allows your diaphragm to drop down and your lungs to expand more.
  • Then, breathe out through pursed lips (see above), while gently pushing inward and upward with your hand. That helps your lungs empty more completely.

Sticking with Your Treatment Plan

In all likelihood, your doctor has prescribed some kind of medication for you that will help your airways work better and minimize your symptoms to some extent. Make sure you take this medicine exactly as prescribed. If you have questions about it or what it is supposed to do, then ask your doctor. Don't be shy. It's your body and you have the right to know what's supposed to happen.

In a future post, I'll go into more detail on the medications used to treat COPD, but for now, keep in mind that it's important to take your medication regularly, to prevent COPD symptoms from getting out of control. Don't save it just for when you feel worse than usual, as it may then take a long time for the medication to take effect.

Your doctor may also prescribe supplemental oxygen, if the medication alone isn't controlling your symptoms. You can explore my series on oxygen therapy to learn more about this option.

These are just a few of the things you can do to maintain your quality of life when you are learning to live with COPD. So much depends on your attitude and your approach to life. But there is no reason on earth why you need to permit COPD to keep you from living!

Just Diagnosed Series:

Part 1: Coping With the Shock

Part 2: What to Expect Physically

Part 3:Your Next Steps

This Post: How to Live a Full Life