COPD Your Life with COPD

Answers to the Most Common Questions about Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Man thinkingA diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary dis­ease, or COPD, can seem like devastating news. A life with COPD is different from a life without the condition, and coping with these changes is a sig­nificant challenge to overcome. The good news is that people with COPD continue to live active, full lives. But you may have a lot of questions about your disease. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

Should I wear my oxygen in the shower?
If your doctor has prescribed oxygen for activity, it’s also very important that you wear it in the shower. Showering is a demanding activity. Therefore, as with any other activity, you should wear your oxygen.

Once I start on supplemental oxygen, will I have to stay on it?
This is a good question to ask your doctor. Some people may need to continue oxygen therapy routinely to maintain the oxygen level in their blood. We all need oxygen to survive and for our bodies to operate more efficiently and effectively. It’s important that you have the proper levels of oxygen in your body so that your heart and lungs are not working too hard or inefficiently. Depending on the progres­sion of your disease, exercise may help your body systems work more effectively and may decrease the amount of supplemental oxygen needed.

Can I just take a “hit” of oxygen when I need it?
No. You should use your supplemental oxygen as prescribed by your doctor. Your oxygen is a prescription, just like your medication. Do not try to “wean” yourself off or use amounts other than as instructed by your doctor. We don’t know what our body’s oxygen needs are without a formal oxygen titra­tion test. During this test, your oxygen level is measured with a pulse oximeter while you exercise. Your doctor uses this test to determine the amount of oxygen you need when you rest and when you exercise.

While most major airlines do allow portable oxygen concentrators on board, it’s important to plan ahead.

I do a lot of yard work and housework, and my job is physically demanding. Do I still need to exercise?
Yes. Even though it is good to work outdoors and to con­tinue doing physical work, it is important to do the exercises given to you by your physical therapist. Usually, work around the house or on your job is of a start-and-stop nature, as is dog walking. It’s important to progress to doing some form of endurance exercise for 30 minutes or more, con­tinuously, to improve the function of your heart and lungs. Endurance exercise will help to make everyday tasks easier.

Why am I short of breath if my oxygen saturation is good?
Depending on your disease, sometimes you may feel short of breath even though your body is getting the oxygen it needs. It’s important to use good breathing techniques, use your medications properly, and discuss your symptoms with your doctor so your specific needs can be met. Exercise can be used to improve functional endurance and strength so tasks become easier with less shortness of breath.

Is COPD the same thing as emphysema?
COPD is short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD includes lung conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Most people with COPD have a combi­nation of both.

Since I’ve had COPD, I’m worried about being around my grandchildren and catching their colds. Is there anything I can do other than avoid being around them?
Fortunately, there are other steps you can take to lessen your risk of lung infections. Ask your doctor about the yearly flu vaccine (which is released every fall) and pneu­monia vaccines. Pneumonia vaccines prevent common types of bacterial pneumonia. Also, avoid touching your nose, mouth, or eyes, and wash your hands (with soap) thoroughly and often. Good handwashing is one of the easiest and best ways to avoid getting all sorts of infections. Though keep in mind that it’s still important to avoid close contact with people who are coughing and sneezing.

Chronic lung pain is not commonly associated with COPD. However, pain can come from the wall of the chest and not directly from the lungs.

Should I eat a special diet because I have COPD?
It’s important for everyone to eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight, but even more so when you have COPD. If you are underweight or overweight, talk to your doctor about your specific needs. Overall, it’s important to eat foods that are nutritious and easily digested. If you get short of breath when eating, eat smaller meals more often. Also, eat slowly and drink your beverage after eating to avoid early fullness.

What sort of arrangements do I need to make before a flight?
People using daily supplemental oxygen will need oxygen on a plane and may need to turn it up one to two liters when flying. Some people with COPD who are not on daily oxygen may also need it during airplane flights. Check with your doctor about your need for supplemen- tal oxygen during air travel, and with the airline to make arrangements. While most major airlines do allow portable oxygen concentrators on board, it’s important to plan ahead. Contact the airline and oxygen company ahead of time to get the appropriate forms your doctor will need to sign.

Is it safe to try alternative therapies to treat COPD?
Currently, there is little scientific evidence to support the use of alternative therapies, such as homeopathy, herbs, and acupuncture, for COPD. While a number of therapies are probably harmless, others may pose considerable risk. Things like yoga and acupuncture are probably safe. How­ever, other alternative therapies, such as herbal medications, vitamin supplements, and restrictive diets, pose greater risks. A few herbal medications contain a variety of contaminants, ranging from aspirin, steroids, and narcotics, to toxic sub­stances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic. The most concern is for the herbal preparation ma huang, which contains ephe­dra, a natural bronchodilator. This has several side effects that can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and blood pressure crises. Prescribed bronchodilators, such as albuterol, have considerably fewer side effects.

I have severe COPD, and I use a nebulizer. What precautions do I need to take with the nebulizer?
If you’re using a nebulizer, you may have an increased risk of lung infections, as it is difficult to completely clean the nebulizer chamber. Taking inhaled medications without a nebulizer is preferred (for example, metered dose, dry powder, or soft mist inhalers). There are some things you can do to help prevent infections in your lungs if you must use a nebulizer. For example, use a non-disposable nebu­lizer, rinse the nebulizer cup after each use, shake it out, and then re-attach the cup to the nebulizer. Turn on the compressor and leave it on until the nebulizer is totally dry and free of any droplets of water. Also, disinfect it by boiling the nebulizer or soaking it in a vinegar and water solution regularly. See the nebulizer package insert for complete instructions. It’s important to correctly clean any respiratory equipment that you use.

Is having pain in the lungs typical of COPD?
Chronic lung pain is not commonly associated with COPD. However, pain can come from the wall of the chest and not directly from the lungs. This in fact can be seen in COPD. Pain in the chest can come from coughing very hard and straining the muscles of the chest. Pain in the chest can be due to a rib fracture from coughing hard. Pain in the back of the chest can come from osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones. Check with your doctor to find out the cause of your pain. If you have new chest pain, or have pain that frightens you, call 911 or go to the emergency room at the nearest hospital.

How can I help bring up mucus when I cough?
Simple devices, such as Acapella or Aerobika airway clear­ance devices, combined with effective coughing techniques can help break up mucus in the lungs, making it easier to cough up thick mucus. Medications or other devices may also be helpful. If you have difficulty bringing up mucus, you should speak to your doctor about this.

Source: National Jewish Health,

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Spring/Summer 2017.