COPD | Living With Skip to Main Content

Health Library

Health Topics

Living with Stable COPD

When you have a chronic lung disease (COPD), you need to watch for signs of flare-ups and get help right away. This article also gives tips on how to avoid them.

woman watering flowers in her garden

If you have a chronic lung disease like COPD, you most likely have to see your doctor more often. You may have even been to the emergency room or had to stay in the hospital recently.

It's important to know the early symptoms of lung infections or flare-ups, so you can get help and avoid serious illness. Also, doing all you can to manage chronic lung disease will help improve your health and cut hospital stays. It’s also important to take care of yourself in general. Take these steps to stay healthy.

1.     Assess your symptoms regularly. Be familiar with your COPD symptoms and know when they're getting worse, so you can get help right away. Some people with COPD get sudden attacks or flare-ups when their symptoms get worse. Symptoms of a COPD flare-up include:

  • Increased shortness of breath
  • Coughing — and possibly wheezing — more
  • Coughing up more mucus, which may be a darker color

2.     Try these self-care steps to avoid flare-ups and to stay healthy:

  • Smoking. If you smoke, get advice on how to quit. Quitting can help slow the progress of the disease. Some people try to quit "cold turkey" — stopping on their own without any help. But quitting for good often takes support from your doctor, along with nicotine replacement therapy or other medicine. It’s also important to avoid secondhand smoke.

  • Vaccines. Make sure your immunizations are up to date. Getting the flu can lead to serious worsening of COPD. That's why getting the flu vaccine every fall is so important. The best time to get the seasonal flu vaccine is as soon as the flu shot becomes available in your community, usually early in the fall. You may also need the pneumococcal vaccine, which protects against a type of pneumonia.

  • Inhaler instruction. Learn how to use your inhalers the right way. If you use a metered dose inhaler or dry powder inhaler, proper technique is essential. Time the "puff" with breathing in. Your doctor should watch you use your inhaler and correct your technique if needed.

  • Medications. Make sure you take your medications correctly. Medicines for COPD include those to help you breathe and possibly corticosteroids.

    These are usually given as an inhaler. They help open up the airways to make breathing easier.

Corticosteroid. Inhaled steroids are often prescribed along with a bronchodilator to reduce inflammation. Oral prednisone is sometimes used for a COPD flare-up, but is usually not given long-term.

Oxygen. Low-flow oxygen helps some people with COPD. By testing your blood oxygen level, your doctor can tell if oxygen therapy would help you feel better.

Antibiotics. These may be prescribed if you have a bacterial infection that is making your COPD worse. Take them as directed. It is very important you finish the entire course unless directed otherwise by your doctor.

  • Feelings. Tell your doctor if you’re feeling down. Depression is common in people with COPD, but it may not be obvious to the doctor. Depression is a treatable condition. Untreated depression may get in the way of successful treatment of your COPD.
  • Activities and exercise. Discuss your ability to do your daily activities. if daily activities such as bathing or dressing are a challenge, your doctor needs to know about it. Ask if you would benefit from pulmonary rehab, a program of supervised exercise for people with COPD. Daily exercise, like walking, gardening or other light activities, may help you keep up your strength and energy level. Ask your doctor about a safe activity level for you.

  • Eating well. A well-rounded diet is an important part of keeping up your strength and health. You may need to eat a handful of small meals during the day if you are not able to eat regular-sized meals. Ask your doctor about seeing a nutritionist if you need help setting up a healthy diet.

3. Know when to see your doctor. Create a COPD action plan with your doctor. Your "action plan" is a set of instructions that tell you what to do if your symptoms get worse. This may include becoming more short of breath or having more or thicker sputum. You should know how often to use your inhaler and when to call the doctor. If you do not have a COPD action plan, discuss it with your doctor at your next appointment.

By Louis Neipris, M.D., Contributing Writer

Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. Global strategy for the diagnosis, management, and prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease revised 2016. Accessed: January 4, 2016.
American Thoracic Society. How can I stay healthy? Accessed: January 4, 2016.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How is COPD treated? Accessed: January 4, 2016.
Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. Pocket guide to COPD diagnosis, management, and prevention. Accessed: January 4, 2016.

Last Updated: January 11, 2016