Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties and includes:

  • emphysema – damage to the air sacs in the lungs
  • chronic bronchitis – long-term inflammation of the airways

COPD is a common condition that mainly affects people who smoke. Many people do not realise they have it. The breathing problems which include increasing breathlessness, a persistent chesty cough with phlegm, frequent chest infections and persistent wheezing, tend to get gradually worse over time and can limit your normal activities, although treatment can help keep the condition under control.

The damage to the lungs caused by COPD is permanent, but treatment can slowdown the progression of the condition. The most important thing you can do is stopping smoking followed by inhalers and medicines designed to make breathing easier, pulmonary rehabilitation which is a specialised programme of exercise and education and in a small number of cases surgery or a lung transplant.

COPD can affect many aspects of your life. But there are some ways to help reduce its impact. It is important that you take good care of yourself if you have COPD. You need to consider the following:

Stop smoking – If you smoke, stopping will slow down or prevent further damage to your lungs. It is never too late to stop smoking. Stopping smoking will improve the quality of your remaining years of life.

Take your medicine – It’s important to take any prescribed medicine, including inhalers, as this can help prevent bad flare-ups. Make sure you read the information leaflet that comes with your medicine about possible interactions with other medicines or supplements. Check with your care team if you plan to take any over-the-counter remedies, such as painkillers or nutritional supplements. These can sometimes interfere with your medicine.

Exercise regularly – Exercising regularly can help improve your symptoms and quality of life. The amount of exercise you can do will depend on your individual circumstances. Exercising until you’re a little breathless is not dangerous, but do not push yourself too far. It’s a good idea to speak to your nurse or GP for advice before starting a new exercise programme if your symptoms are severe or you have not exercised in a while. You may be advised to participate in a pulmonary rehabilitation programme, which will include a structured exercise plan tailored to your needs and ability.

Maintain a healthy weight – Carrying extra weight can make breathlessness worse, so it’s a good idea to lose weight through a combination of regular exercise and a healthy diet if you’re overweight. Some people with COPD find that they unintentionally lose weight. Eating foods that are high in protein and taking in enough calories is important to maintain a healthy weight.

Get vaccinated – COPD can put a significant strain on your body and mean you’re more vulnerable to infections. Everyone with COPD is encouraged to have the annual flu jab and the one-off pneumococcal vaccination. If you have been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable or are now eligible you should be invited to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.

Check the weather – Cold spells and periods of hot weather and humidity can cause breathing problems if you have COPD. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the weather forecast and make sure you have enough of your medicine to hand in case your symptoms get temporarily worse. 

If you have COPD and you’re planning to fly, you may need a fitness-to-fly assessment, speak to your GP about this in advance of any planned travel.

Watch what you breathe – There are certain things that should be avoided, if possible, to reduce COPD symptoms and the chances of a flare-up, including dusty places, fumes, such as car exhausts, smoke, air freshener sprays or plug-ins, strong-smelling cleaning products (unless there’s plenty of ventilation), hairspray and perfume.

Regular reviews and monitoring – You’ll have regular contact with your care team to monitor your condition. These appointments may involve talking about your symptoms (such as whether they’re affecting your normal activities or are getting worse), talking about your medicine (including whether you think you might be experiencing any side effects), and tests to monitor your health.

Breathing techniques – There are various breathing techniques that some people find helpful for breathlessness. These include breathing control, which involves breathing gently using the least effort, with the shoulders supported. This can help when feeling short of breath.

Breathing techniques for people who are more active include:

  • relaxed, slow, deep breathing
  • breathing through pursed lips, as if whistling
  • breathing out hard when doing an activity that needs a big effort
  • paced breathing, using a rhythm in time with the activity, such as climbing stairs
  • If you have a chesty cough that produces a lot of phlegm, you may be taught a specific technique to help you clear your airways called the active cycle breathing technique.

Relationships – Having a long-term illness such as COPD can put a strain on any relationship. Difficulty breathing and coughing can make you feel tired and depressed. Your spouse, partner or carer may also have a lot of concerns about your health. It’s important to talk about your worries together. Being open about how you feel and what your family and friends can do to help may put them at ease. But do not feel shy about telling them that you need some time to yourself, if that’s what you want.

Your sex life and COPD – As the condition progresses, the increasing breathlessness can make it difficult to take part in strenuous activities. The breathlessness may happen during sexual activity. Talk to your partner and stay open-minded. Explore what you both like sexually. Simply touching, being touched and being close to someone helps a person feel loved and special. Your doctor, nurse or physiotherapist may also be able to suggest ways to help manage breathlessness during sex.

Page last updated – August 2022