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The weight of the world: What COPD feels like


Deb Bailey, 47, of Hot Springs, Ark., has had Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) for four years. Most days she experiences shortness of breath, a “squeezing” feeling in her chest—like an elephant is sitting on her chest—and coughing fits, impacting the amount of physical activity Bailey can do.


“I wish I could play more with my grandbabies, volunteer at their school like I did when my kids were little,“ she said. "I wish I could walk to the mailbox without gasping for air.”

COPD is a breathing disorder bundled and/or related to chronic bronchitis or emphysema and occasionally asthma, said Gina Kaurich, R.N., executive director of client care services at FirstLight Home Care in Columbus, Ohio, and a nurse with 40 years of experience in caring for COPD patients.


COPD in asthma patients can be reversible, she noted; however, the condition is not curable and only treatable in patients with chronic bronchitis or emphysema.


Chronic bronchitis and emphysema impact the lungs’ ability to breathe in or expel air because of an obstruction in the bronchials. With chronic bronchitis, Kaurich said, the tubes that take air in and out of the lungs are inflamed, causing mucus, coughing and inflammation. With emphysema, the inflammation over time destroys the lung tissue and causes a stiffening of the bronchials as well as a loss of lung flexibility, making it difficult to breathe.

COPD patients can be susceptible to depression, Kaurich said, since restricted breathing can affect everything from physical activity to sleeping and can cause anxiety. “Loved ones and patients need to understand this is a disease that can cause exhaustion,” she said.


COPD is caused by environmental pollutants such as cigarette smoking and inhaling irritants in the workplace such as coal, drywall dust, pesticides and other pollutants. Smokers can substantially lower their risk of developing COPD by quitting, according to the respiratory health journal Thorax.


Treatment includes quitting smoking, staying away from irritants including cigarette smoke, campfires, perfume and air fresheners; using a nebulizer to help open the bronchial tubes; and using portable oxygen, according to the COPD Foundation.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, pulmonary rehabilitation (learning breathing exercises to expand lungs) may reduce hospital admissions and improve quality of life for COPD patients.


Bailey tries to get as much sleep as possible, drinks plenty of fluids and takes the best care she can of herself, limiting stress and anxiety.

Drinking fluids can help prevent infection, Kaurich said, adding it’s also important for those with COPD to be vaccinated against the flu and pneumonia, see their doctor regularly and monitor chest pain and temperature in case of infection.


Avoiding alcohol and skipping caffeine, which can heighten anxiety and constrict bronicals, also can help COPD patients breathe a little more freely.

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