Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Although there is no current cure for COPD, early treatment is important to help improve how you feel, slow the progression of symptoms, and keep your COPD well managed, including reducing the risk of flare-ups.

Quit Smoking

Not all people with COPD have smoked, however, if you do smoke, quitting is the single most important thing you can do to improve your health and lung function. If you continue to smoke, this will affect your health and respiratory symptoms, so the sooner you quit, the better your chances of living well with your COPD. Do not feel guilty about having smoked. Most smokers say they would like to quit, and may have tried at least once. Some are successful the first time but many others try a number of times before they finally give up for good. A quit plan can help you reflect on why you smoke, your motivations for quitting and help you choose your preferred quit tools.


If you get breathless during your normal daily activities you may start to avoid exercise, however, this can cause your muscles to get weak and you’ll lose fitness over time. COPD research has shown that regular exercise can help maintain your fitness, improve your wellbeing and reduce symptoms, such as breathlessness. You should aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes, five times a week. It’s important to note that you do not have to do all 30 minutes at once. For some people this will be achievable whilst others will need to break it up into smaller sessions. The activity you do should make you a little out of breath and it’s important to talk with your health professional such as a physiotherapist about what type of exercise would suit you.

“I was suffering from shortness of breath and when I started trying to get fit, I couldn’t get around the block. Any minor incline was a challenge and set me off coughing. Since quitting, I’m running 30 to 40km a week and I don’t cough as much.”
Roy, lives with COPD.

Stay active and healthy

Studies have shown that people with chronic lung conditions use 25 – 50% more energy than healthy people5. This is due to the increased work of breathing and fighting chest infections or flare-ups, which are more common in people with COPD. There are lots of things you can do to make sure you stay healthy and have energy to do the things you enjoy, including:

  • Stay within a healthy weight range*
  • Eat a healthy, nutritious diet
  • Be physically active
  • Get enough rest and good quality sleep
  • Look after your wellbeing by enjoying friends, family and hobbies. Practicing relaxation techniques can also help reduce feelings of stress or anxiety.

*An Accredited Practising Dietician (APD) can help you understand what your healthy weight range is. They can also help you set goals and develop healthy eating plans to ensure you are getting the right nutrition.

Pulmonary rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation is an exercise and education program provided by specially trained health professionals. It teaches you the skills needed to exercise safely, manage your breathlessness and to stay well and out of hospital.

Ensure your vaccinations are up-to-date

This may include discussing a seasonal flu vaccination and a pneumonia vaccine with your doctor, in order to help support your immune system.

Access emotional support

Anxiety and depression are not uncommon in COPD and it’s important to access support. It can be difficult to know if you feel down because of your physical health or if you have symptoms of depression or anxiety. Talk to your doctor or contact Lung Foundation Australia for referral to appropriate support services.

Lungs in Action

After you finish pulmonary rehabilitation, it is important to continue exercising to help maintain your physical fitness and lung health. Lung Foundation Australia’s Lungs in Action program is a safe and fun community-based exercise class designed to help people with a chronic lung disease maintain the benefits achieved through pulmonary rehabilitation.

“Pulmonary rehabilitation made such a difference for me that my doctor took me off the waiting list for lung reduction surgery, and I am now back at work two days a week.”
John, lives with COPD.

Reducing your symptoms

Many people find using a battery operated fan can help control breathlessness, and research has shown that a cool draft of air from a hand-held fan can be very effective in reducing symptoms. You can use your fan as often and for as long as you like. Keep it handy when at home and also take it with you when you go out. You may find it helpful to use your fan if you stop for a ‘breather’ after doing an activity that makes you breathless, such as walking, climbing stairs or for sudden breathlessness when you are still.

Treatment Options

In addition to self-management treatment options, pharmacological (or medicine-based) treatments can also help manage your COPD symptoms.

COPD medicines and inhalers

There are a number of medicines that COPD patients can take to help improve their breathing. Some work by helping to open your airways, while others relax the muscles around your airways to make breathing easier. These medicines are most commonly taken using an inhaler device (puffer). Up to 90% of people with COPD do not know how to use their inhaler device correctly, so it is important for a trained health professional (such as your doctor or pharmacist) to show you how to use your inhaler and assist you to get the technique right. Correct use of your inhaler device is important and will ensure you get the most benefit from your medicine. Some people may need to take more than one medicine. It is important to take your medicines each day as prescribed by your doctor, even if you feel well.

  1. Reliever medicines: for quick relief of increasing symptoms of breathlessness.
  2. Maintenance medicines: for long term regular use, to control your usual symptoms and help prevent flare-ups.
  3. Flare-up medicines: for short-term use during an acute flare-up of your COPD symptoms.

Oxygen therapy

In severe cases of COPD if your oxygen levels are very low, home oxygen may be prescribed by your doctor or specialist. This may reduce the damage to your vital organs or improve your quality of life, however it is not prescribed to stop breathlessness. Some patients may need continuous oxygen while others may only require oxygen during physical activity (i.e. walking or exercising). While oxygen therapy may relieve breathlessness in some people, in many cases it does not.