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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): After Your Visit

Your Care Instructions

Picture of the airways inside the lungs

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a general term for a group of lung diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. 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 colds and flu. Get a pneumococcal vaccine shot. If you have had one before, ask your doctor whether you need a second dose. Get the flu vaccine every fall. If you must be around people with colds or the flu, wash your hands often.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke, air pollution, and high altitudes. Also avoid cold, dry air and hot, humid air. Stay at home 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. Bronchodilators are either short-acting (work for 6 to 9 hours) or long-acting (work for 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 while you are away from home.
    • Corticosteroids (prednisone, budesonide). These reduce airway inflammation. They come in pill or inhaled form. You must take these medicines every day for them to work well.
  • A spacer may help you get more inhaled medicine to your lungs. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if a spacer is right for you. If it is, 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.
  • Oxygen therapy boosts the amount of oxygen in your blood and helps you breathe easier. Use the flow rate your doctor has recommended, and do not change it without talking to your doctor first.

Activity

  • 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 cannot talk while you are exercising.
  • 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, talk to him or her about whether 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.

Diet

  • Eat regular, healthy meals. Use bronchodilators about 1 hour before you eat to make it easier to eat. Eat several small meals instead of three large ones. Drink beverages at the end of the meal. Avoid foods that are hard to chew.
  • Eat foods that contain fat and protein so that you do not lose weight and muscle mass. These foods include ice cream, pudding, cheese, eggs, and peanut butter.
  • Use less salt. Too much salt can cause you to retain fluids, which makes it harder to breathe. Do not add salt while you are cooking or at the table. Eat fewer processed foods and foods from restaurants, including fast foods. Use fresh or frozen foods instead of canned foods.

Mental health

  • Talk to your family, friends, or a therapist about your feelings. It is normal to feel frightened, angry, hopeless, helpless, and even guilty. Talking openly about bad feelings can 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.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse trouble breathing.
  • 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 are not getting better as expected.

Last Revised: May 17, 2013

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Care instructions adapted under license by Kaiser Permanente. This care instruction is for use with your licensed healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.


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.

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