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Caring for Someone with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

What is COPD?

COPD is a progressive lung disease that makes it hard to breathe due to obstructed airflow in the lungs. You may be more familiar with the terms of chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which are often referred to as COPD. According to the National Institute of Health, COPD is the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States, and it is estimated that more than 12 million people are diagnosed with COPD. Symptoms of COPD include difficulty breathing, chest tightness, cough, mucus production, and wheezing.

The most common cause of COPD is tobacco smoking; it is estimated to contribute to 80 percent of COPD deaths. Other causes are linked to air pollution, exposure to secondhand smoke, and exposure to occupational dust and fumes. COPD may also result from a genetic disorder that causes a deficiency of a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT). However, this occurs rarely--in only about 1 percent of people with COPD.

How is COPD diagnosed?

A doctor makes a diagnosis of COPD based on a thorough medical history, including signs and symptoms and test results of spirometry. Spirometry is a simple test that is done in a doctor's office to determine how well the lungs work by measuring the degree of air inhaled and exhaled.

What is the treatment for COPD?

There is currently no cure for COPD and it is a disease that will worsen over time. However, there are treatments and lifestyle changes that can help your loved one feel better and manage his or her disease effectively.

Treatment goals include relieving symptoms, slowing the progression of the disease, improving exercise tolerance, and preventing and treating complications. Medication therapy is the primary type of treatment for COPD, which includes fast acting inhalers to help relieve sudden COPD symptoms and long-acting regular inhalers that work to reduce inflammation and constriction in the lung. Other treatments include pulmonary rehabilitation and participation in regular exercise. For people with severe COPD, oxygen therapy may be prescribed to help improve exercise tolerance. 

As a caregiver, you play an important role in helping your loved one manage their medical treatment.

Here are ways you can help:

  • Learn as much as you can about the condition and treatments that are recommended.
  • Attend appointments with your loved one's primary care physician and any specialists.
  • Prior to the doctor's appointment, be sure to keep a record of any questions that you or your loved one may have.
  • Be sure to discuss any concerns you may have, especially if your loved one is having more symptoms than usual.
  • Educate yourself and your loved one about the warning signs of worsening lung disease, which is also referred to as exacerbation.
  • Be sure to ask the physician for an action plan that details what to do in case of worsening symptoms.

In general, the following symptoms should be reported:

  • Increased mucus production or change in appearance of mucus
  • Increase in coughing or chest pain when coughing
  • Excessive trouble breathing while engaging in everyday activities
  • Swelling in the hands or feet
  • Shortness of breath causing trouble sleeping

American Lung Association: My COPD Action Plan

The American Lung Association recommends "My COPD Action Plan" plan be completed by the patient with their doctor/health care providers and discussed at each doctor's visit.

Additional ways you can help your loved one

Quit smoking:

If your loved one is smoking, you should talk to his or her primary care physician about programs and products that may help them quit. Sometimes, joining a support group can help! For smoking cessation resources and information about supports groups:

SmokeFree: A free resource that offers access to coaches and plans designed to support anyone who wants to quit smoking or chewing tobacco.

American Heart Association: Resources to Help You Quit Smoking

American Cancer Society: Guide to Quitting Smoking

Pulmonary rehabilitation:

Speak to your loved one and his or her doctor about pulmonary rehabilitation. It is a structured, medically supervised program designed to help patients be more active with less shortness of breath. The program consists of exercise training and breathing strategies to improve lung function, education on lung disease and how to manage it, energy conservation, and psychological support.


Help your loved one manage their medications. Many times, worsening of lung function can be related to not taking medications as prescribed.

  • It is important that you keep track of the medications and make sure your loved one is taking them as directed by their doctor.
  • Speak with the doctor about whether or not your loved one should get the flu (influenza) and pneumonia vaccines. 
  • All medication inhalers are made differently. To get the most from your inhalers, ask your local pharmacist to review the proper technique.

Tufts Health Plan Care Management Program:

Work with a dedicated Care Manager for:

  • Personalized care plan promoting self-care.
  • Support for complying with physicians plan of care and medications.
  • Disease-specific educational material.
  • Education and support regarding medication adherence.
  • Education on how to recognize and alleviate warning signs and symptoms
  • Assistance with advanced care planning.
  • Connection to community resources.

To learn more about working with a Care Manager, call Customer Relations at 1-800-701-9000 (TTY: 711) 7 days a week, 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. (From Apr 1 - Sep 30, representatives are available Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 8 p.m.) After hours and on holidays, please leave a message and a representative will return your call on the next business day.

Additional COPD resources:

American Lung Association

COPD Foundation