Chronic obstructive lung disease or COPD is a long-term, progressive lung disease that encompasses emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD makes breathing difficult, which affects a person’s energy levels and can cause fatigue.
Symptoms of COPD often vary in severity. In the early stages of COPD, symptoms can be mild and may not interfere with people’s day-to-day life. As the disease progresses, symptoms often become worse.
Common symptoms of COPD include:
- shortness of breath
- increased mucus production
- frequent lung infections
- chest tightness
COPD fatigue causes tiredness and a lack of energy, which can significantly impact a person’s quality of life.
In this article, we examine in more detail what COPD fatigue is, and how doctors treat it. We then cover seven tips for coping with COPD fatigue.
Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of COPD, especially as the disease progresses. Research suggests that between 50 and 70 percent of people with COPD also have fatigue.
Fatigue often goes hand in hand with COPD, but the reasons for this association are not clear.
People with COPD have trouble getting oxygen into their lungs and carbon dioxide out. The shortage of oxygen and the buildup of carbon dioxide can both make someone feel tired and low in energy.
The damage to the airways in COPD causes the air sacs to lose their tone and become floppy. It is often difficult for someone with COPD to completely empty their lungs, which creates a buildup of carbon dioxide in the body and can contribute to tiredness.
Because breathing becomes difficult with COPD, it requires a lot of effort. The increased effort needed to breathe uses even more energy, which can add to fatigue.
When a person is feeling tired, they may limit their activities, which over time can lead to decreased stamina and body deconditioning. The more deconditioned a person becomes, the more fatigued they may feel even doing simple tasks.
Having COPD fatigue can significantly impact a person’s ability to perform everyday activities, such as household chores, personal grooming, and recreational activities.
Fatigue can lead to a decrease in activity and possibly depression. COPD fatigue can have a drastic effect on a person’s quality of life.
There is currently no cure for COPD, but treatment can help reduce symptoms, including fatigue. Managing shortness of breath and making it easier to breathe may help fatigue.
A doctor can prescribe medications to help a person breathe easier, including:
- bronchodilator inhalers, which dilate or widen the airways
- steroid inhalers, which reduce inflammation in the lungs
- oxygen therapy to relieve shortness of breath in people with low oxygen levels
Lifestyle changes can also help people with COPD cope with fatigue and improve their energy levels:
1. Practicing breathing exercises
Breathing exercises can be useful for people with COPD. Pursed lip breathing can improve fatigue by:
- slowing the respiratory rate
- getting rid of trapped carbon dioxide
- relieving shortness of breath
A person can try pursed lip breathing during and after any activity that causes shortness of breath. To do pursed lip breathing, a person should:
- Breathe through the nose for around 2 seconds
- Purse or pucker the lips, as if blowing out a candle
- Slowly breathe out through the pursed lips for 4–6 seconds
- Repeat the exercise
2. Eating a balanced diet
Eating a balanced and healthful diet can help people with COPD meet their increased energy needs and maintain good health. The American Lung Association recommend:
- choosing to eat complex carbohydrates, such as fresh fruits and vegetables and wholegrain breads and pasta
- avoiding or limiting simple carbohydrates, such as table sugar, soda, cakes, and candy
- getting plenty of dietary fiber, such as from fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, bread, and pasta
- eating a healthful source of protein at least twice daily, such as from lean meats, fish, poultry, eggs, and beans
- avoiding or limiting foods that contain trans and saturated fats, such as fried foods, butter, cookies, pastries, and processed foods
Some people with COPD may also find a multivitamin supplement helpful. A doctor or dietician can advise on a diet that meets a person’s individual needs.
3. Pacing activities
Pacing involves balancing a person’s activity with rest. One way to do this is by breaking tasks down into smaller steps and resting in between each step. Another way is to carry out certain activities at a slower, more relaxed pace.
Pacing activities can conserve energy, decrease fatigue, and allow someone with COPD to do more. A person should pace their activities according to their energy needs.
4. Exercising regularly
Exercise may be the last thing on a person’s mind when they feel fatigued. But, regularly doing some form of exercise can be beneficial for people with COPD.
Exercise, such as walking, strengthening exercises, and yoga can be beneficial. Regular exercise can improve exercise tolerance and strengthen the heart and muscles. Having a strong body can help combat fatigue.
Pulmonary rehabilitation classes are a good place for people with COPD to participate in regular exercise. Doctors, therapists, and other specialists supervise these classes, and they usually take place in a hospital or clinic.
As well as exercise training, these classes may also include:
- education on lung disease
- strategies and techniques for better breathing and conserving energy
- nutritional advice
- counseling and group support
5. Treating other conditions
COPD tends to get worse over time, which can lead to complications and additional health problems.
If left untreated, some complications of COPD can make fatigue worse. People with COPD should talk to their doctor about treatment options for any other health problems they may have.
6. Keeping hydrated
Drinking plenty of fluids is essential to prevent dehydration, which can negatively impact a person’s energy levels.
Keeping hydrated also helps prevent mucus from becoming too thick and worsening symptoms such as coughing.
The American Lung Association recommend that people with COPD drink six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water or other caffeine-free fluids daily. A person should spread this liquid intake out over the course of the day.
7. Sticking to good sleeping habits
Having COPD may interfere with getting enough rest. Nighttime coughing or shortness of breath can make falling and staying asleep difficult. Practicing good sleeping habits can help a person with COPD get a restful night’s sleep.
Good sleeping habits include:
- going to sleep and waking up around the same time each day
- limiting caffeine several hours before bed
- creating a cool, dark, and quiet sleep environment
- doing something relaxing to unwind before going to sleep, such as reading a book, doing some light stretches, or taking a warm bath
People with COPD often experience fatigue. But, managing symptoms by working closely with a doctor or therapist can help improve energy levels.
Making specific lifestyle changes, such as improving sleep, eating healthfully, and exercising, can also help combat COPD fatigue and improve quality of life.