COPD Caregivers: How to Help and What to Know

In the pulmonary sector, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is an illness of the lungs that affects airflow and breathing quality. Most commonly catalyzed by chronic bronchitis or emphysema, COPD’s symptoms range from difficulty breathing to a chest tightness, deep cough, thick mucus and wheezing. Long-term exposure to gases or irritants is attributed to its onset. Those afflicted with COPD are also at a higher risk of developing more serious heart and lung diseases down the road.

Though the symptoms can be debilitating, the good news is that, with the proper preventative measures and treatment, COPD symptoms can be kept at bay and its side effects mitigated. If someone you know has recently received a COPD diagnosis, you may be wondering how to help. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind as you begin this journey together.

Encourage the Patient to Stop Smoking

One of the most common causes of COPD is exposure to cigarette smoke. In fact, the Centers for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that of COPD-related deaths, a significant 80% occur in patients who were former smokers. While it would stand to reason that a COPD diagnosis would encourage those to kick the habit for good, the data reveals that a little under 40% of patients continue to smoke even after learning of their related health issues.

As such, one of the first signs that someone has the disease is the trademark “smoker’s cough.” This is often a deep, consistent cough that gets worse right after smoking. While the two are not always linked, this cough can be an early signal of a later COPD diagnosis. Encourage your loved one to take steps toward giving up the habit. If he or she is working with a respiratory therapist, many offer access to free or reduced-cost programs designed to help patients with that transformation. There are also over-the-counter medications, patches and special gums that can help in the interim.

Take a Walk Together

When it’s difficult to breathe, physical activity sounds like too much exertion. That might be why many COPD patients choose to give up such hobbies upon learning their diagnosis. Though it might seem strange, getting some fresh air and moving your body is actually an ideal way to help reduce COPD symptoms and improve the overall health of COPD sufferers.

The longer we sit stagnant, the more opportunity our lungs have to become weakened and the more likely COPD patients are to develop an additional health condition, ranging from obesity to heart disease. Conversely, working out allows us to strengthen those vital organs and safeguard them against any vulnerabilities. So, while neither of you may want to run a marathon in the blistering heat, a brief walk in the early morning or evening, when the sun is at its lowest point, is a great way to bond with each other and get your heart rates up at the same time.

Regular exercise is also a great mental health booster! This is especially important, as COPD is also linked to anxiety and depression, with around 40% of sufferers also struggling with these conditions.

Understand and Monitor Medications

Your loved one’s respiratory therapist may have prescribed a range of medications to help him or her take control of COPD symptoms. You can click for more information on the various kinds of treatment options available to help combat the disease.

From short or long-acting bronchodilators to corticosteroids and phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) inhibitors, there are a host of solutions available and the exact one your loved one is prescribed will depend on his or her specific diagnosis, symptoms, and long-term care plan. Make sure the patient understands what the medication is used for and is abreast on how to properly use any specialized equipment, such as a rescue inhaler.

Look Out for Secondary Diseases

Often, COPD is linked to overlapping health concerns, most of which deal directly with lung quality and airflow. When patients are diagnosed with more than one condition, it can make their overall health even more at risk. Specifically, asthma is one of the most commonly overlapped disease for those dealing with COPD.

Your loved one’s respiratory therapist will be well-versed in looking for, researching and analyzing these symptoms to determine if there are any more diseases or concerns at play in addition to the COPD. For example, the therapist can monitor activity in the airway to check for hyperactivity when considering if asthmatic symptoms are also present.

Improve Environmental Air Quality

If your loved one is having difficulty breathing due to COPD, it’s critical to ensure the air that he or she is breathing is as clean and free from contaminants or irritants as possible. That said, if there is anything inside of the patient’s home or workplace that could be triggering symptoms or making them worse, it’s time to take action. This might mean that a dander-shedding pet needs to be re-homed. Or, a cohabiting smoker might need to move out.

Regardless of how it might change the environment in the short-term, it’s important to keep in mind that these are positive changes that will improve the patient’s quality of life in the long run. You can also invest in an air purifier to make sure circulating air is clean. If the patient lives in an area where the air is especially thick, muggy or polluted, wearing a mask is advisable when working or playing outside in these conditions.

Helping a COPD Patient Thrive

As someone who cares about, and possibly for, a COPD sufferer, knowledge is key. Arming yourself with the data necessary to make the right decisions, pursue the correct courses of action and take the best steps forward is essential to make sure the patient’s symptoms are mitigated and quality of life is maximized.

Take the time to understand the condition, talk to your loved one about any changes that need to be made, and go forward with the confidence that, with the right measures, this is a treatable disease that doesn’t have to define anyone.