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Once you have been diagnosed with COPD, there are many ways that you and your doctor can work together to manage the symptoms of the disease and improve your quality of life. Your doctor may suggest one or more of the following options:
Bronchodilators are medicines that usually come in the form of an inhaler. They work to relax the muscles around your airways, to help open them, and make it easier to breathe. Inhaled steroids help prevent the airways from getting inflamed—and anti-inflammatory agents help reduce inflammation or swelling. Of course, each patient is different—your doctor may suggest other types of medications that might work better for you.
Your doctor may recommend that you participate in pulmonary rehabilitation, or "rehab." This is a program that helps you learn to exercise and manage your disease with physical activity and counseling. It can help you stay active and carry out your day-to-day tasks.
Your doctor or a pulmonary therapist recommended by your doctor might teach you some activities to help your arms and legs get stronger and/or breathing exercises that strengthen the muscles needed for breathing.
Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking can help you manage the effects of COPD.
If your COPD is severe, your doctor might suggest oxygen therapy to help with shortness of breath. You might need oxygen all of the time or just some of the time - your health care provider will work with you to learn which treatment will be most helpful.
COPD patients with very severe symptoms may have a hard time breathing all the time. In some of these cases, doctors may suggest lung surgery to improve breathing and help lessen some of the most severe symptoms.
Symptoms of COPD can get worse all of a sudden. When this happens, it is much harder to catch your breath. You might also have chest tightness, more coughing or a change in your cough (becomes more productive, more mucus is expelled), and a fever.
When symptoms get worse quickly, it could be a sign of a lung infection. There could be other causes for symptoms getting worse, such as heart disease related to severe lung damage. The best thing to do is call your doctor right away so he or she can find out what the cause of the problem is and take steps to treat it.
When To Get Emergency Help
Seek emergency help if your usual medications aren't working and:
- You find that it is unusually hard to walk or talk (such as difficulty completing a sentence).
- Your heart is beating very fast or irregularly.
- Your lips or fingernails are gray or blue.
- Your breathing is fast and hard, even when you are using your medication.
Be prepared and have information on hand that you or others would need in a medical emergency, such as a list of medicines you are taking, the name of your doctor and his/her contact information, directions to the hospital or your doctor's office, and people to contact if you are unable to speak or drive yourself to the doctor or hospital.
For more information on COPD and taking steps to breathe better, visit the NHLBI's Diseases and Conditions Index.