Living with COPD: Ten Myths - Busted!

Health Professional

Here are ten things commonly said about COPD. Do you buy into them - or are you busted?

1. COPD is always caused by smoking.
Not true. Although cigarette smoking is a major cause of COPD, not everybody who has COPD was, or is, a smoker. Fact is, 85 percent of all people with COPD were or are smokers. Other factors that contribute significantly to the development of this disease are breathing hazards in the environment - especially in the workplace - and heredity.

2. You're a smoker. What did you expect?
So, if you smoked, or still smoke, you get COPD, right?
Not necessarily. Research reveals that only about 20 percent of people who smoke eventually get COPD. But, don't let those odds fool you. Cigarette smoking is bad for you, for everybody, no matter what.

3. As soon as I quit smoking, my lungs will start to regenerate.
Wouldn't that be nice? But, unfortunately, it's doesn't happen. Delicate lung tissue that has been destroyed will stay that way. If you smoke, make every effort to avoid further lung damage by quitting smoking, avoiding lung irritants and infections, and taking the best medications available to keep your lungs stable. To understand the progression of COPD related to smoking, see the image below (taken from the Canadian Journal of Diagnosis, February 2006).

4. Exercising helps build up my lungs and improve my lung function numbers.
I wish it did! Although lung damage itself cannot be reversed, you can have huge improvements in your ability to breathe better and stay active by exercising - effectively. There is definitely a right way and wrong way to exercise with COPD, and pulmonary rehab is the best place to learn. At PR, respiratory professionals teach you how to breathe effectively while you exert, and also give you information on how to avoid infections and perform everyday tasks with less shortness of breath.

5. Once I go on oxygen, that's the beginning of the end.
I hear people say this all the time and it is not true! Using supplemental oxygen can actually help you live longer. On the other hand, struggling along with oxygen levels that are too low to adequately supply your heart, brain, other organs and muscles is going to wear your body out sooner, possibly causing a heart attack or stroke.
6. The best thing for me to do is take it easy and do as little as possible.
So not true! When you have COPD, sitting in your chair and doing nothing is the worst thing you can do! Inactive muscles quickly become weak and use oxygen less efficiently. A supervised exercise program can help you feel much better and help you have a better quality of life.
7. A diagnosis of COPD is pretty much a death sentence.
Not true at all! It is not unusual for a person to live for many years (20 years or more) with a diagnosis of COPD. With the right medications, exercise, nutrition - and a positive attitude, you have a good chance to live long enough to spoil your grandchildren!

8. It's gross to cough and to spit out your mucous. You should just hold it in.
Well, it might seem that way, but as a person with COPD it is often a necessary part of your daily routine to clear your lungs of excess phlegm. If the pipes in your bathroom are clogged, will ignoring it do you any good? In addition to the benefit of clearing your lungs, monitoring the color of your mucous can help you catch an infection in its early stages and help you avoid getting sick.

9. If I wear my oxygen at home, that should be enough to help me when I go out.
Untrue. Your body cannot store oxygen. In fact, once your blood makes the trip from your heart and lungs to your muscles, organs and tissues, and back to your heart and lungs again, the oxygen is used up. It then becomes carbon dioxide, which is what you exhale. This entire trip through your body takes about seven minutes. So, as nice as it would be to gather your oxygen during sleep and store it for daytime use, it just doesn't work that way.

10. I should be as thin as possible in order to carry less weight and breathe as well as I can. Not at all. It is true that a person with COPD should not have a large belly because it can push up on the lungs and get in the way of breathing. However, it is perfectly all right for a person with COPD to weigh up to ten pounds over "ideal" body weight. This bit of extra weight comes in handy if you get sick and can't eat. Some people with significant levels of COPD use more calories just to breathe than they can possibly consume. Do the math. You don't want to go there.

So, my friends, don't believe everything you hear on the street! Keep on learning from solid, reliable sources about what you can do to breathe better with COPD and your outlook will be a lot brighter.

Jane M. Martin is a licensed respiratory therapist, teacher and the founder and director of and author of Breathe Better, Live in Wellness.