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COPD: I’ve been diagnosed, what now?

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a lifelong condition causing inflammation and blockage of the airways. It will require constant management to avoid symptoms and keep your lungs as healthy as possible. Unfortunately, it does get worse over time, and you may have acute bouts of illness during its course.

Your doctor will be your main point of contact, and they will review you any time symptoms suddenly worsen. You will have an annual review with your doctor or practice nurse, where they may ask you to bring your peak flow and symptom diary or repeat lung function tests to see how well the medication is helping symptoms.

If you still smoke, you will be encouraged to give up smoking at each review.

Doctor’s advice

What’s the treatment?

You may be given different types of inhalers. One is a short-acting bronchodilator to relax and widen the airways if you have a bout of coughing, wheezing, or feeling out of breath. The effect is short-lived, and you shouldn’t use it more than four times per day. If you regularly need this, you may be given a long-acting bronchodilator, which lasts for up to 12 hours.

Your doctor may consider prescribing a steroid inhaler or a combination inhaler, to keep inflammation low and prevent you from getting symptoms.

Your doctor or practice nurse will teach you the inhaler technique and tell you when to use the inhalers. Your doctor may refer you for pulmonary rehabilitation, which provides you with lung exercises to build flexibility and stamina and education to manage your condition.

What does a flare-up look like?

You may have increased inflammation, in which case you will feel more wheezy and out of breath than usual. You may be reaching for your rescue inhaler more often, or it may not be providing the usual relief. This could be a flare-up (or acute exacerbation) that requires steroid tablets to reduce the inflammation – see your doctor urgently.

A chest infection can also cause a flare-up, where you will produce much more mucus than usual and it may look green. You may feel feverish, unwell and not eating. These are reasons to see your doctor urgently, and they may give antibiotics for a bacterial infection, along with steroid tablets.

These exacerbations can be serious and sometimes require hospital admission or treatment. If you suffer these frequently, your doctor may have a "rescue plan", whereby you start treatment as soon as symptoms arrive, then wait until your doctor can assess you further – this is to avoid needing admission to the hospital.

What if I give up smoking?

Giving up smoking is the best thing you can do for your health, improving any COPD symptoms and reducing your risk of many types of cancer and heart disease, which ultimately reduces the risk of early death. COPD means you have permanent damage to some of the lung tissue. You can’t reverse this damage, but while you continue to smoke, the damage will spread further, and your COPD will get much worse, with more flare-ups and chest infections.

People are more successful at quitting for good with assistance from stop-smoking programs, where they can help break behavioral patterns and utilize nicotine replacement therapy, among other techniques.

Are there other ways to help my condition?

The lungs are composed of elastic tissue and muscles that allow you to breathe in oxygen and breathe out the waste gas carbon dioxide. The lungs need exercise along with the rest of the body – you should keep as active as you are able, for example, brisk walks, gym work, and so on. Singing can be a great way to exercise your lungs, so consider joining a choir if it appeals to you. And continue with your pulmonary rehab exercises.

Obesity adds further stress to the lungs, as respiratory muscles have to work against the additional weight on the chest, and there are additional body demands for oxygen. It also adds a further hurdle to keeping active. If you are obese (with a body mass index (BMI) over 30), take steps to lose weight.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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