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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma: Overview

Some people who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may also have asthma. With both of these conditions, air doesn't flow easily in and out of your lungs. This can make it hard to breathe. You may be short of breath, wheeze, cough, or have mucus in your airways.

When you have COPD and asthma, it's important to follow your treatment plan.

There are two parts to your treatment:

  • Controlling COPD and asthma over the long term.
  • Treating attacks or flare-ups when they occur.

You and your doctor can make a plan that will help. This plan tells you the medicines you take to manage your symptoms and prevent attacks or flare-ups. It also tells you what to do if you have an attack or flare-up.

How can you care for yourself when you have COPD and asthma?

To control COPD and asthma

  • Do not smoke. Smoking can make COPD and asthma worse. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Learn what sets off your COPD and asthma. Avoid these triggers when you can. Common triggers include smoke, pollen, pollution, and infections like COVID-19, colds, the flu, or pneumonia.
  • Check yourself for symptoms to know which step to follow in your action plan. Watch for things like being short of breath, having chest tightness, and coughing more than usual. Look for a change in the color or thickness of your mucus. Also notice if symptoms wake you up at night or if you get tired quickly when you exercise.
  • Check your lungs with a peak flow meter, if your doctor recommends it. Peak flow can tell you how well your lungs are working.
  • Try pulmonary rehabilitation, if your doctor prescribes it. This combines different treatments to help you reduce your symptoms and stay as active and healthy as you can.

Medicines

  • Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. COPD and asthma are treated with medicine to help you breathe easier. You may take:
    • Controller medicines. These prevent attacks and flare-ups before they happen. They are taken regularly. There are different types.
    • Quick-relief medicine. This is for times when you can't prevent symptoms and need to treat them fast. It can quickly relax the airways and allow you to breathe easier.
  • Learn how to use your inhalers the right way. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for help.
  • Use oxygen if your doctor recommends it. Oxygen therapy boosts the amount of oxygen in your blood and helps you breathe easier. Use the flow rate your doctor recommends. Do not change it without talking to your doctor first.

Preventing infections

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Avoid illnesses such as COVID-19, colds, and the flu.
  • Get a flu vaccine every year. Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines. Ask your doctor about getting the pneumococcal and whooping cough (pertussis) shots.

To treat attacks when they occur

  • Follow your action plan. It can tell you what to do when you have an attack or flare-up.
  • Take your quick-relief medicine exactly as prescribed. Talk with your doctor if you have any problems with your medicine.
    • Keep this medicine with you at all times.
    • You may need to use this medicine before you exercise to prevent an attack.
  • If your doctor prescribed corticosteroid pills or other medicines to use during an attack or flare-up, take them as directed. They may shorten the attack and help you breathe easier.

COPD and asthma: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You have severe chest pain.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse shortness of breath.
  • You have new or worse chest pain.
  • You cough up blood.
  • You have a fever.
  • You have used your quick-relief medicine or followed your plan for what to do if your symptoms get worse, but you are still short of breath.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You are coughing more deeply or more often, or 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 have feelings of anxiety or depression.
  • You need to use your antibiotic or steroid pills.
  • You are not getting better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.