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Manage COPD Symptoms

by Mary Gallagher, RN, MSN, CCRN

Sep 1, 2018
Health

COPD STANDS FOR CHRONIC obstructive pulmonary disease, which results in blocked airways in the lungs, making it hard to breathe. Over time, symptoms usually worsen, making it more difficult to take care of yourself and take part in activities. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two common types of COPD.

In chronic bronchitis, the cells in the airways make more mucus than normal. The mucus builds up, narrowing the airways and allowing less air to travel into and out of the lungs. The lining of the airways may become inflamed, causing them to narrow even more.

With emphysema, the small airways are damaged and lose elasticity. The airways collapse when you exhale, trapping air in the air sacs. Less oxygen enters the blood vessels, delivering less to all the cells of your body.

Most people get COPD from smoking. Cigarette smoking damages the cilia, the small hairs that line and protect the airways. Damaged cilia can’t sweep mucus and particles away; some of the cilia are destroyed, worsening COPD.

Air may get trapped in the lungs, preventing your lungs from filling completely with fresh, oxygen-filled air when you inhale. It’s harder to take deep breaths, especially when you are active and breathing faster. Over time your lungs may become enlarged, filling with air that does not transfer oxygen into the blood. Common symptoms are shortness of breath, wheezing, a chronic cough and feeling worn out.

Your health care provider uses your past health history, a physical exam and tests to diagnose COPD. Tell your provider about your symptoms, their duration and whether they interfere with daily activities. Share other health problems and surgeries you have had. Report serious health problems in close family members, especially lung problems. The most important factor in COPD is whether you smoke or smoked in the past. Also tell your provider if you have been around secondhand smoke, harmful chemicals or air pollution.

Your provider will check your heart and lungs with a stethoscope and focus on your airways, including your nose and throat. Diagnostic tests may include pulmonary function tests, spirometry, pulse oximetry, arterial blood gas tests, chest X-rays and CT scans.

Treatment for COPD may include medications, oxygen therapy, quitting smoking and avoiding infections. Wash your hands frequently and get vaccinated for the flu and pneumonia to prevent infections. Learn to cope with shortness of breath through exercise, breathing techniques, alternating rest with activity, pulmonary rehabilitation and healthy eating.

Be as active as possible to improve energy levels and strengthen your muscles so you can do more. Ask your health care provider to show you how to do pursed-lip breathing. Ask about pulmonary rehab programs which provide breathing techniques, exercise, support and counseling. Eating a healthy, balanced diet and maintaining your ideal weight are important to staying healthy. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables daily as well as balanced portions of whole grains, lean meats and fish and low-fat dairy products

When you have chronic lung disease, it’s normal to have good days and bad days. Take care of yourself emotionally as well as physically. Take steps to feel more in control of your health and situation. Your health care team, family and friends are there to help. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings and ask for support. Chronic lung disease can affect your independence, leading to feelings of anger, frustration, anxiety and depression.

Keep doing the things you enjoy. As you plan your day, include activities just for fun. Stay involved with friends and family. Learn about your lung disease and bring loved ones with you to medical appointments. Follow your treatment plan and talk to your provider if you have concerns. New treatments are constantly developed; if current treatment doesn’t meet your needs, other choices may be available.

Chronic lung disease shouldn’t stop you from traveling, visiting family and friends and enjoying yourself, even if you use oxygen. You just need to be prepared. Changes in altitude and climate affect breathing and may require changes to your treatment, so talk to your physician about your plans.

Preparation is key before a trip. Pack enough prescribed medicine for your entire trip plus extra in case of delays. Ask your provider if you need prescriptions for other medicines while traveling. Get copies of your prescriptions and bring a list of your medicines and doctors. Ask your provider what to do in case of infection; you may need a prescription for an emergency medicine. Ask your insurance company if you’ll have coverage in your destination. Get a portable nebulizer if needed.

If traveling with oxygen, plan ahead. Get copies of your oxygen prescription and a letter from your provider stating you must use oxygen. Arrange for oxygen to be delivered to your destination through a medical supply company in that area to make sure it is delivered before your arrival. Call the transportation company you will travel on to learn the requirements for traveling with oxygen. Give yourself several weeks to make arrangements.

Wear a medical ID bracelet listing your medical conditions, medication allergies and other allergies. Use a hand sanitizer often. Keep your medicines in your carry-on bags. Stretch your arms and legs if you’re sitting for long periods. If a rescue inhaler has been prescribed, use it before getting up to move around and before getting off the plane.

The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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