What Can Be Done When Someone With COPD Feels Short of Breath All the Time?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What can be done when someone with COPD feels short of breath all the time?

Expert Answer

Dr. Leslie Kernisan is the author of a popular blog and podcast at BetterHealthWhileAging.net. She is also a clinical instructor in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics.

When someone with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) feels short of breath, what can be done depends on the circumstances.

  • If the person with COPD develops more shortness of breath than usual over a few days, or that shortness of breath quickly becomes more labored, the person needs prompt medical care. Rapid worsening of one's breathing can be a sign of a COPD exacerbation (also called a COPD flare), which can become life-threatening if not treated promptly.
  • If the person with COPD is finding himself more short of breath all the time, see an internist or, better yet, a pulmonary specialist. The doctor should verify that the shortness of breath is due to poorly controlled COPD and not some other condition. The doctor can then recommend adjustments in inhalers and other medications. Some patients need to use three to four different inhalers every day to manage their COPD.

As COPD progresses, some patients may find that they also need oxygen for certain parts of the day or even around the clock.

  • If the person with COPD is receiving maximum therapy (with medications and oxygen) and still feels short of breath most of the time, this is a difficult situation with no easy solutions. Depending on the person's age and other factors, options include surgery, hospice, or simply choosing to live with the discomfort of chronic shortness of breath. For those who choose hospice, opiate medicines such as morphine and oxycodone act on the lungs and can help relieve some of the labored breathing.