Keep Your Lungs Healthy
Because your lungs are already compromised and are in direct contact with the environment, it’s important to avoid anything in the air that might cause them further harm. This includes toxins like tobacco smoke, airborne chemicals, air pollution, and respiratory germs. However, this may not be realistic, so investing in a quality air purifier for home use is a good option.
Cigarette smoking leads to 85%–90% of COPD cases. If you are diagnosed with COPD, it’s important to both quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. A lit cigarette emits more than 7,000 chemicals, most of which are harmful. The toxins in cigarette smoke weaken the lungs’ defense against infection, narrow and cause swelling in airways, and damage air sacs—all contributing factors to COPD. We all know that quitting can be easier said than done, but thankfully, there are many resources to help. Talk with your doctor and visit Smokefree.gov for tools and tips to quit smoking for good.
Avoid chemicals in the air known to harm the lungs: industrial compounds such as dust and fumes, harsh cleaning products, and smog from burning fuel. Make sure to have protective equipment in the workplace and a well-ventilated home environment.
To reduce the harmful effects of air pollution, people with COPD should be aware of the air quality in their area and take extra measures such as reducing their time outdoors and wearing masks when necessary. Air pollution is composed of toxins like smoke and chemicals from factories and cars that are harmful to lung tissue. Exposure to air pollution can exacerbate COPD and cause an increased need for oxygen or medications.
Most phone weather apps show air quality in your region or you can get more detailed and forecasted information from air quality map websites. Here’s a screenshot of what the data looks like when you search your ZIP code:
People with COPD are more likely to develop colds, the flu, and pneumonia, which can cause further lung damage. Steer clear of these infections by:
- Regularly washing hands and using hand sanitizer
- Avoiding crowds and people you know are sick
- Practicing good oral hygiene
- Getting vaccinations against the flu and pneumonia for you and those around you
Tip: Here are the CDC’s recommendations for vaccinations for adults with lung disease.
One way to improve lung function is with breathing exercises. The diaphragm muscle normally does about 80% of the work when you’re breathing. Lungs with COPD are less springy and potentially accumulate increased carbon dioxide levels that are normally fully exhaled by healthy lungs. This makes it harder for the diaphragm to work at full capacity and ultimately leads to reduced oxygen levels in the body.
Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing
If the diaphragm struggles to work at full capacity, other muscles in the chest, back, and neck will step in. This is a much less efficient way to breathe. It can be improved with a technique called diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing), which is aimed at retraining the diaphragm to do most of the work of breathing. To practice belly breathing:
- Breathe in through your nose while paying attention to your belly filling up with air. You can set your hand or something light on your stomach to watch it rising.
- Breathe out through your mouth for at least two to three times longer than the length of your inhalation while relaxing your neck and shoulders.
Pursed-lip breathing gets more air flowing in and out of the lungs and thus more oxygen to the body, especially when you’re feeling short of breath. To practice pursed-lip breathing:
- Breathe in through your nose.
- Breathe out through your mouth with lips pursed (O-shaped) for at least twice as long as the length of your inhalation.
Aim for 5–10 minutes of both exercises daily and additionally when feeling particularly short of breath.
You may be surprised to learn that what you eat can affect your COPD and breathing. Proper nutrition affects overall health, mood, and energy levels. Nutrition is so important that many doctors will recommend a diet plan or refer you to a registered dietician nutritionist (RDN) if you are diagnosed with COPD. There are even RDNs who specialize specifically in COPD.