Caring for Someone With COPD: An Overview

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a common chronic health problem that may affect as many as 16 million Americans, according to the latest estimates. Over many years, the lungs slowly lose their ability to effectively move oxygen into the blood. Shortness of breath and other symptoms are barely noticeable at first, but over time they can become debilitating, requiring patients to get significant help from family and others.

Although COPD can't be cured, treatment can minimize symptoms, reduce the chance of dangerous exacerbation flares, and extend and improve quality of life.

If you've been told your loved one has COPD, here's what you'll need to know:

Is COPD currently causing symptoms or otherwise requiring special medical attention?

Whether the COPD has been recently diagnosed or is something the doctor has been mentioning for years, caregivers should familiarize themselves with symptoms of poorly controlled COPD. The most common ones are shortness of breath (especially with exertion), frequent coughing up of phlegm, and wheezing. Learn more about symptoms of COPD and what to do. COPD can also cause life-threatening flares (also known as exacerbations); learn how to spot these and what to do.

Are any other chronic conditions causing shortness of breath or cough?

Shortness of breath is a symptom shared with many other serious chronic illnesses (such as heart failure). To help a loved one with COPD, be sure to find out which of your loved one's other conditions can cause symptoms similar to COPD's. You'll need this information so you can work with your loved one's doctor to create an action plan for what to do if your loved one's symptoms get suddenly worse.

How far along is your loved one's COPD, and what kind of symptoms should you expect?

COPD has four stages, which correlate with lung performance as measured by pulmonary function tests. Chronic symptoms may be barely noticeable in stage I (the mildest stage), whereas people with stage IV are often wearing oxygen and are still frequently short of breath.

Learning about a loved one's stage of COPD can help you anticipate what kinds of symptoms are likely and what kind of help he or she is likely to need.

If your loved one has stage IV COPD, has been told he or she has "end-stage COPD," or has been repeatedly hospitalized for COPD, these resources specially tailored to caring for someone with severe COPD can help.

What's the plan for managing the person's COPD, and is this plan on track?

Every person with COPD should have an individualized plan to manage the condition. In the earlier stages of COPD, this usually involves some combination of inhalers. In the later stages of COPD, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, and other strategies may be needed. Caregivers can help by making sure that a doctor regularly reviews the COPD management plan. Caregivers should also help their loved one keep up with that management plan (making sure they're taking medications and monitoring for worse symptoms, for example).

Regardless of the stage of COPD, one of the most important treatments is for a current smoker to stop smoking. If your loved one with COPD is still smoking, see these ideas on how to help a smoker quit.

Dr. Leslie Kernisan

Leslie Kernisan is a clinical instructor in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics, and maintains a popular blog and podcast at BetterHealthWhileAging. See full bio