Living better at home with COPD

There are vastly different ways that Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease—better known as COPD—affects those living with it. Since symptoms can be mild at first and increase over time, learning to cope with COPD often means making adjustments as symptoms progress. While there is no cure yet, various treatment and medication options can greatly help those dealing with it.

Illustration of older woman with Parkinsonʼs sitting down in a chair

What is COPD?

COPD is an umbrella term that encompasses several progressive lung diseases, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, asthma (the non-reversible kind), and some forms of bronchiectasis, which is abnormal widening of the bronchial tubes.

One of the first signs people notice is shortness of breath and coughing, though it is common for those in early stages of COPD to assume these signs are just a normal part of aging. A person with COPD might not even detect it at first because the disease can develop for years without perceptible symptoms. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you do notice symptoms. Getting screened early can help identify COPD before major loss of lung function occurs.

Most cases of COPD are caused by inhaling pollutants, usually due to smoking. Even someone who smoked early in life and then quit can develop this disease. In addition, environmental factors can play a role. Being exposed to fumes, chemicals, and dust found in certain work environments contributes to development of the disease. But, even if a person has never smoked or been exposed long-term to strong lung irritants, genetics is thought be a factor, as well.

Common COPD symptoms

Symptoms of COPD often donʼt appear until significant lung damage has already occurred and they usually worsen over time, particularly if exposure to lung irritants continues. Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath. Dyspnea is difficult or labored breathing, the sensation that you cannot get enough air into your lungs. It often occurs during physical activities.
  • Frequent coughing. A daily cough and sputum production at least three months a year for two years in a row suggests chronic bronchitis. Don’t wait this long to get checked out.
  • Wheezing. Take note if you’re making a high-pitched whistling sound when you breath, especially while exhaling.
  • Throat clearing. Having to clear your throat first thing in the morning, due to excess mucus in your lungs, may be an indicator of COPD.
  • Blue lips or fingernail beds. Called cyanosis, this bluish tint indicates insufficient oxygen in the blood.
  • Exacerbation. When symptoms worsen for a sustained period of time, beyond normal day-to-day breathlessness or cough, this is called an exacerbation. It may indicate that a change in treatment is warranted.

Consult with your doctor if you have any of these symptoms, frequent respiratory infections, or lack of energy.

Do you know the early warning signs?

Review COPD symptoms from the American Lung Association. Consult with your doctor if you have any of these symptoms, frequent respiratory infections, or lack of energy.

If you have been diagnosed with COPD...

  • Quit smoking. The best step you can take to slow the progression of COPD is to stop smoking if you are a smoker. Your healthcare provider can help you determine the best method for you to kick the habit.
  • Acknowledge your feelings. A COPD diagnosis can be frightening. Seek help from your doctor if you’re feeling depressed or anxious.
  • Understand your lungs. Learning how our lungs work can keep you feeling in control of your body and help your family members understand your abilities and limitations as symptoms progress.
  • Learn about your options. There are many treatments, such as breathing techniques, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, and medications that can help improve quality of life. Be sure to work with your doctors to develop a treatment plan that’s best for your situation.
  • Exercise. It may seem counterintuitive to exercise when you’re having difficulty breathing, but the more you can do, the better you’ll feel by lowering your resting heart rate and blood pressure. Plus, improving circulation lets your body more efficiently use oxygen. Shortness of breath decreases the more you build your endurance.
  • Communicate directly. Be clear with family members and care providers about your priorities, needs, and wants.
  • Reach out to others. Spending time with other people who have COPD can help you learn about the disease and feel encouraged.
  • Stay positive. Focus on what you can do rather than what you cannot do. Explore new activities and new ways to find happiness and fulfillment.

If you’re caring for someone with COPD…

  • Know the signs of exacerbation. If symptoms get worse, don’t wait it out. Call the doctor when the person with COPD has increased difficulty breathing during normal activities, increased coughing, or a great deal of chest pain when coughing. Swollen hands or feet, muscle cramps, fatigue, and weakness are also signs to be aware of. If your loved one wakes in the night with shortness of breath or has green, yellow, or bloody mucous, call your doctor or seek emergency medical assistance.
  • Schedule time for you. It may be hard to enjoy activities when you’re worried about someone with COPD. But your well-being is just as important. In addition to keeping up with medical appointments, don’t forget to make time for you: meet friends at the art gallery, refinish that antique chair, play racquetball, or get out in the garden. And be sure to put it on your calendar so you’ll really do it. This is when caregivers find adding a care professional to their team helpful.
  • Round up your team. When your duties increase while caring for a loved one, you may be loaded up with more responsibilities than you can reasonably handle. Accept help from friends or relatives who offer it. Or, call a family meeting to discuss routine chores that need to be accomplished and who has the capacity to do them. Keep a list of "To Dos" so you can hand off a specific task when someone asks how they can help. Enlist the help of professionals if family members are already overextended or live too far away to be there in person.
  • Learn as much as you can. COPD treatment may consist of pulmonary rehabilitation—prescribed exercise, nutrition, counseling, and disease education. Since rehab can significantly improve COPD symptoms, as a caregiver you can encourage your loved one to go to rehab and even attend rehab sessions together to learn more about it and to show support. You should also learn how to use any prescribed equipment, such as supplemental oxygen, a handheld bronchodilator inhaler, or a nebulizer.
  • Kick the habit. If you’re a smoker living with someone coping with COPD, the most important step you can take to improve their health and yours is to stop smoking. Right now. Talk to your doctor about the best program for you.

People with advancing COPD may require supportive professional care in a safe environment to ensure their condition is managed effectively.

COPD facts

  • As many as one in four people with COPD has never smoked cigarettes.
  • One in five of hospitalized individuals over 40 has a COPD diagnosis.
  • 24 million Americans have COPD. Half of them don’t know it.

Helpful resources

  • To learn more about COPD or to find resources in your area, visit
  • Want help finding information or local resources in your community? You can speak with a COPD trained associate now by calling (866) 316-2673.
  • Living with someone who has COPD? Check out the COPD Foundation FAQ for caregivers.
  • Looking for information and inspiration from others coping with COPD? Explore these blogs about COPD.

This information is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for the advice of a medical professional. Sources: COPD Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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