Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Care Instructions

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Lungs in chest showing bronchial tubes in left lung, with detail of healthy airway and inflamed airway


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. With COPD, the airways that lead to the lungs are narrowed, and the tiny air sacs in the lungs are damaged and lose their stretch. People with COPD have decreased airflow in and out of the lungs, which makes it hard to breathe. The airways also can get clogged with thick mucus. Cigarette smoking is a major cause of COPD.

Although there is no cure for COPD, you can slow its progress. Following your treatment plan and taking care of yourself can help you feel better and live longer.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

Staying healthy

  • Do not smoke. This is the most important step you can take to prevent more damage to your lungs. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Avoid infections such as COVID-19, colds, and the flu. Wash your hands often. Get the pneumococcal and whooping cough (pertussis) vaccines. If you have had these vaccines before, ask your doctor if you need another dose. Get the flu vaccine every fall. Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke and air pollution. Try to stay inside with your windows closed when air pollution is bad.

Medicines and oxygen therapy

  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You may be taking medicines such as:
    • Bronchodilators. These help open your airways and make breathing easier. They are either short-acting (work for 4 to 9 hours) or long-acting (work for 12 to 24 hours). You inhale most bronchodilators, so they start to act quickly. Always carry your quick-relief inhaler with you in case you need it.
    • Corticosteroids (prednisone, budesonide). These reduce airway inflammation. They come in inhaled or pill form.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are using each type of inhaler correctly. With correct use, the medicine is more likely to get to your lungs.
  • See if a spacer is right for you. A spacer may also help you get more inhaled medicine to your lungs. If you use one, ask how to use it properly.
  • Do not take any vitamins, over-the-counter medicine, or herbal products without talking to your doctor first.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • If you use oxygen therapy, use the flow rate your doctor has recommended. Don't change it without talking to your doctor first. Oxygen therapy boosts the amount of oxygen in your blood and helps you breathe easier.


  • Get regular exercise. Walking is an easy way to get exercise. Start out slowly, and walk a little more each day.
  • Pay attention to your breathing. You are exercising too hard if you can't talk while you exercise.
  • Take short rest breaks when doing household chores and other activities.
  • Learn breathing methods—such as breathing through pursed lips—to help you become less short of breath.
  • If your doctor has not set you up with a pulmonary rehabilitation program, ask if rehab is right for you. Rehab includes exercise programs, education about your disease and how to manage it, help with diet and other changes, and emotional support.


  • Eat regular, healthy meals.
  • Use bronchodilators about 1 hour before you eat to make it easier to eat.
  • Eat several smaller, frequent meals to prevent getting too full. A full stomach can push on the muscle that helps you breathe (your diaphragm) and make it harder to breathe.
  • Drink beverages at the end of the meal.
  • Avoid foods that are hard to chew.
  • Eat foods that contain protein so you don't lose muscle mass.
  • Talk with your doctor if you gain too much weight or if you lose weight without trying.

Mental health

  • Talk to your family, friends, or a therapist about your feelings. Some people feel frightened, angry, hopeless, helpless, and even guilty. Talking openly about feelings may help you cope. If these feelings last, talk to your doctor.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You have severe chest pain.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse trouble breathing.
  • You have new or worse chest pain.
  • You cough up blood.
  • You have a fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You cough more deeply or more often, especially if you notice more mucus or a change in the color of your mucus.
  • You have new or worse swelling in your legs or belly.
  • You have feelings of anxiety or depression.
  • You need to use your antibiotic or steroid pills.
  • You are not getting better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.