Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. But with the right treatment and support, patients can continue to live well.
For the millions of people diagnosed with COPD every year, life is forever changed. COPD is a common, preventable and treatable disease that is characterized by persistent respiratory symptoms, making it difficult to breathe. Daily activities that were once routine like walking or getting dressed become challenging, and even dangerous. But with treatment and support, most COPD patients can get back to their lives.
The number one risk factor for COPD is smoking. “The most important thing you can do when diagnosed with COPD is to adjust the environmental contribution — quit smoking,” advises Antonio Anzueto, M.D., a professor in the division of pulmonary diseases at the Long School of Medicine in San Antonio, as well as a member of the scientific committee of The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD).“It’s important that healthcare providers offer tools and assistance towards quitting smoking as part of treatment.”
Healthcare providers should also encourage their COPD patients to increase their physical exercise. Even low-impact activity like walking can help strengthen their respiratory system and reduce symptoms and the frequency of flare-ups.
When it comes to medications like bronchodilators and glucocorticoids, Dr. Anzueto stresses that the wide range of devices and drugs available allows the healthcare provider to tailor the approach to the patient and make adjustments until the ideal treatment program is found. “There are something like 28 or 29 different inhalers,” he notes, “not to mention other drug delivery options, such as nebulizers, and implanted valves that can help increase lung capacity.”
Patients also need to be proactive. “Be mindful of conditions that can trigger a flare-up and compromise breathing,” Dr. Anzueto says. “For example, when pollen or dust levels are high, stay inside and wear a mask if you can. After you go outside, take a shower immediately to wash dust and pollen off so you don’t breathe it in even after returning home. And it is crucial that COPD patients get their regular vaccinations against influenza and pneumonia — any infection that can compromise their breathing is especially dangerous.”
For some patients, surgeries such as lung volume reduction or even transplantation may be helpful or necessary, but Dr. Anzueto notes that the vast majority of COPD patients improve with just lifestyle changes and medications.
For both COPD patients and their caretakers, support is just as important as medication. “Many people dealing with COPD need caregivers who are often family and loved ones,” Dr. Anzueto says, “and it’s important to note that both experience compromised autonomy as a result of this disease, and thus both need support.”
There are many resources for both COPD patients and the people helping them manage their daily lives. The American Lung Association (ALA) maintains the Better Breathers Club program, which connects patients and their caregivers with others in their area in order to share support, advice, and information. The COPD Foundation also maintains COPD360, an online social platform for COPD patients, family and caregivers, and healthcare providers. In addition, The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) maintains up to date guidelines for healthcare professionals regarding the most current evidence-based treatment options, both for medical and non-medical interventions.
Dr. Anzueto highly recommends pulmonary rehabilitation programs if available. These are classes that teach beneficial lifestyle practices and breathing exercises, such as pursed-lip breathing and belly breathing, that can help COPD patients relax their airways and be able to take a deep breath. If such programs aren’t available or are inconvenient, the ALA offers online video tutorials that can be used to learn some of these techniques.
COPD can be limiting and frightening, but Dr. Anzueto preaches optimism. “It’s important to remember that COPD is a treatable condition,” he says. “The symptoms can be treated, and the progression of the disease can be slowed.”