Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term that describes two lung conditions: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema involves damage to the air sacs within the lungs, while chronic bronchitis involves chronic inflammation of the airways.

COPD is a progressive condition, meaning it worsens over time. Although there is no cure for COPD, treatments are available to help alleviate symptoms, slow the progression of the disease, and improve quality of life.

This article outlines the treatment options and lifestyle considerations that could benefit people living with COPD. We also outline tips for preventing COPD and discuss the outlook for people living with the condition.

a doctor is listening to a patient's heart with a stethoscopeShare on Pinterest
FG Trade/Getty Images

The treatment for COPD involves alleviating symptoms, slowing the progression of the disease, and reducing the risk of complications. The exact treatment a person receives will depend on various factors, including the stage and severity of the disease and the person’s overall health.

Treatment options may include the following:

  • Medications: Doctors may prescribe medications called bronchodilators, which relax muscles around the airways to increase airflow in and out of the lungs. Short-acting bronchodilators are suitable for occasional use, while long-acting bronchodilators are suitable for daily use. Doctors may also prescribe steroid medication, with oral and inhaled forms both available. Steroids help to reduce inflammatory compounds present in the lungs.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation: Pulmonary rehabilitation is a broad program that aims to improve a person’s quality of life. The program may include the following:
    • education in disease management
    • exercise programs
    • nutritional counseling
    • psychological therapy
  • Oxygen therapy: As COPD progresses, it is sometimes necessary for people to receive oxygen from a portable tank. Oxygen delivery may be through a face mask, or through tubes in the nose or mouth. People may require oxygen at specific times of day, or before activities.
  • Vaccines: People with COPD are at increased risk of developing respiratory infections and associated complications. As such, doctors may suggest that people with COPD receive vaccines for the flu, pneumonia, and COVID-19.
  • Surgery: People who have severe COPD that is resistant to other forms of treatment may require surgical intervention. Surgery may involve removing damaged parts of the lungs, or receiving a lung transplant from a donor.

People with COPD may need to make certain lifestyle changes in order to manage the disease more effectively. Some examples are:

Quitting smoking

The main risk factor for COPD is smoking. Up to 75% of people who have COPD are current or former smokers.

The most important step for many people with COPD is quitting smoking. Doing so can slow COPD progression and reduce the risk of complications.

Doctors can provide practical information and advice on quitting smoking. They can also refer people to support groups and provide prescriptions for tobacco substitutes.

Avoiding other irritants

Some cases of COPD are due to exposure to airborne irritants. Avoiding these irritants is an important part of disease management.

Some irritants to avoid include:

  • tobacco smoke, including secondhand smoke
  • air pollution
  • dust
  • strong odors, such as air fresheners
  • aerosol sprays
  • fine powders
  • cold weather

Dietary changes

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), dietary changes are an important consideration for people with COPD.

Metabolism is the process of converting food and oxygen into energy and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a waste product that the body removes during breathing out or “exhalation.” Reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that the body needs to exhale can improve breathing in people with COPD.

The ALA provides the following dietary guidelines for people living with COPD:

  • Opting for complex carbohydrates: People should choose complex carbohydrates over simple carbohydrates. An example would be eating whole-grain cereals over white bread, rice, or pasta.
  • Opting for unsaturated fats: People should choose mono- and poly-unsaturated fats over trans or saturated fats. This may mean opting for plant oils over butter or friend foods.
  • Eating plenty of fiber: People should aim to eat 20 to 30 grams of fiber per day, along with a good source of protein.

Regular exercise

Regular physical exercise will also be beneficial for people with COPD. It may lead to improvements in the following:

  • oxygen usage
  • breathing
  • cardiovascular fitness
  • muscle strength
  • energy levels
  • sleep
  • mental health

A person should talk with their doctor about the types of exercise and level of physical activity that is appropriate for them. In general, the following exercises are beneficial for people with COPD:

People can reduce their risk of COPD by avoiding or quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke.

Other potential lung irritants to avoid include:

  • air pollution
  • chemical fumes
  • dust

People should also aim to lead a healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity and a balanced diet.

There is currently no cure for COPD. The condition typically requires lifelong treatment that may increase in intensity over time. People with mild symptoms may require only moderate lifestyle changes. However, those with more severe COPD may require oxygen therapy and even surgery.

Timely and effective treatment can help to alleviate COPD symptoms and reduce the risk of complications. Successful COPD management can improve a person’s quality of life.

Anyone experiencing signs and symptoms of COPD should see a doctor for a spirometry test. This test uses a device called a spirometer to assess lung function. It works by measuring the amount of air a person can breathe out in a single forced breath.

A spirometry test can enable early detection of COPD, meaning people can begin treatment fairly quickly. Without timely treatment, COPD could progress faster and cause severe complications.

COPD is a progressive lung disease that affects a person’s breathing. Although there is currently no cure for COPD, treatment options are available to help alleviate the symptoms, slow disease progression, and reduce the risk of complications.

The treatment for COPD may vary from person to person. People with only mild symptoms may benefit from lifestyle changes, such as avoiding lung irritants, engaging in regular exercise, and following a healthy diet. Those with more severe symptoms may require oxygen therapy and even surgery.

A person can reduce their risk of COPD by quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke. People should also avoid other types of lung irritants, such as air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust.