Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive disease that causes difficulty breathing. There are many treatment options for COPD, including lifestyle changes and pulmonary rehabilitation to manage symptoms.

Doctors will diagnose COPD with spirometry, body plethysmography, or lung diffusion testing, which are all tests of lung functioning.

Spirometry measures the speed and amount of air a person can push through their airways. Body plethysmography measures the volume of air in their lungs after a deep breath and after a full exhalation. Lung diffusion testing measures how well their lungs deliver oxygen to and remove carbon dioxide from their blood.

People with COPD may have typical lung capacity but a reduced ability to push air out of their lungs on the spirometry test. A doctor will consider these results and other symptoms when giving a COPD diagnosis.

COPD often requires lifelong treatment. Read on to learn more about how to manage symptoms of COPD.

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COPD is a progressive disease that causes breathing problems. It is the result of long-term exposure to irritants that damage a person’s lungs and airways, typically from tobacco smoke. COPD limits the amount of air that can flow through these pathways.

Common symptoms of COPD include:

  • persistent cough or coughs with excess mucus
  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty performing physical activity
  • chest tightness
  • wheezing or whistling while breathing

There is currently no cure for COPD. According to the National Health, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), treatment typically aims to:

  • reduce symptoms
  • slow disease progression
  • improve capacity for physical activity
  • lower the risk of complications
  • improve overall health

The aim of each treatment varies from case to case. The underlying principle of treatment is to improve the quality and duration of life for people with COPD.

The type of treatments may also vary over time as the disease progresses. For example, a doctor may suggest treatment options based on the GOLD staging system, which ranges from mild (GOLD 1) to very severe (GOLD 4).

Doctors will typically suggest one or more lifestyle changes for people with COPD. This depends on an individual’s symptoms, complications, and overall health. According to NYU Langone Health, these changes might include the following:

  • Stop smoking. Research suggests that smoking accounts for 85–90% of all COPD cases. It can increase the rate of disease progression. Avoiding tobacco products is an important step to treating COPD.
  • Get vaccinated. People with COPD are at risk for severe disease from infections, such as influenza, COVID-19, and bacterial pneumonia. People with COPD and influenza may develop pneumonia, which can be fatal.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise can improve lung capacity and strengthen surrounding muscles to support lung functioning.
  • Change working or living environments. Exposure to irritants and pollutants, such as dust or chemicals, at work or home can worsen COPD symptoms.
  • Keep a healthy weight. People who are overweight or who have obesity may experience more severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath.

Doctors may also prescribe medications that can help with breathing.

Bronchodilators are common medications for people with COPD. These drugs relax muscles around the airways to increase their capacity.

Bronchodilators can be short-acting or long-acting. The short-acting forms last 4–6 hours and are useful for dealing with episodic symptoms as they occur. A doctor may prescribe these drugs to people with milder symptoms who do not regularly experience symptoms.

The long-acting forms are more suitable for daily use as they last for 12–24 hours. Doctors may prescribe these in moderate or severe cases alongside short-acting bronchodilators.

In some cases, doctors might also prescribe inhaled glucocorticosteroids to reduce the frequency of severe symptom episodes. They reduce inflammation in a person’s airways. However, research documents a link to certain side effects, such as weight gain, hypertension, and depression.

Pulmonary rehabilitation is a program that can help improve a person’s lung functioning, alleviate symptoms, and improve their quality of life. The program typically includes a combination of education and exercises with the support of a team of specialists.

Doctors will design a pulmonary rehabilitation program around the needs of an individual. The program can improve a person’s general health and symptoms. It provides them with the capacity to maintain these benefits after completion.

For example, the program may include regular exercises with a specialist to improve lung capacity and strength. Doctors will then combine this with training courses and materials on how to perform these and other exercises at home.

Some people with COPD may require oxygen therapy or supplemental oxygen. They can receive oxygen through a face mask or tubes in their nose or mouth.

People with COPD may experience a lack of oxygen due to their limited lung functioning. Additional oxygen can address this and alleviate symptoms, such as shortness of breath and tiredness.

A doctor may prescribe a portable oxygen tank for use at specific times throughout the day. In some cases, oxygen therapy may be necessary while a person is in a clinic or hospital.

People with COPD may be eligible for surgery, which can treat their emphysema. This occurs when air sacs in the lungs are damaged in people with COPD.

According to the American Lung Association, people with COPD may be eligible for surgery if they:

  • are physically fit to handle operation
  • undergo a pulmonary rehabilitation program
  • are not currently a smoker

The surgery could be a bullectomy, where doctors remove large bulbs of damaged air sacs from a person’s lungs. Lung volume reduction is another form of surgery that involves reducing the size of damaged lung tissue.

In rare cases, lung transplants are another option. This involves replacing a lung that is damaged beyond repair.

Read more about lung transplants and COPD here.

People with COPD often must learn to cope with the condition. The NHLBI makes several suggestions for people living with COPD, including:

  • avoiding lung irritants, which includes quitting smoking or avoiding air pollution and chemical fumes
  • seeking ongoing care, which requires taking the medications a doctor prescribes and engaging with other therapies
  • managing the symptoms of the disease, which could include moving to a house without stairs or wearing clothes that are easy to remove
  • preparing for emergencies, which might involve constant access to a phone or contacting a doctor if there are signs of an infection

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 50% of adults with COPD could have the condition without realizing it. Being vigilant for any signs and symptoms is important for getting an early diagnosis and treatment to slow the disease progression.

People should contact a doctor if they have any signs of COPD, particularly if they smoke. COPD is a serious condition, but it can be manageable with proper care.

COPD is a progressive condition that affects breathing. It may start with mild symptoms, but it can become severe over time and affect a person’s daily functioning. Doctors may use a spirometry test to diagnose COPD and determine its severity.

There are many treatment options available for people with COPD. Doctors can help suggest the right treatments for individuals. Most people will require lifelong treatment to manage COPD and slow its progression.