Coughing for Better Breathing
Last updated: April 2021
Learning how to cough effectively is an important skill when you have COPD. The congestion that often goes along with your COPD can result in clogged airways. And if your airways are clogged, you may end up having or worsening the other common COPD symptoms, like:
You may also feel the urge to cough when your airways are "merely" irritated. It is a natural response of the body.
Unfortunately, when you cough, it can use up a lot of your energy. In fact, it can be exhausting and if not done well, unproductive. However, coughing done well, and deeply, can be helpful and healing.
Why People Who Have COPD Need to Cough
People who have COPD do tend to have airways that produce more mucus than people with healthy respiratory systems. Normally, this mucus is clear and fairly thin and you should be able to cough it up without too much trouble.
But if the mucus builds up, it can become a breeding ground in your lungs for bacteria and viruses. When that happens, the mucus can get thick and sticky and usually is yellowish or greenish in color. That type of mucus is much harder to cough up.
Also, uncontrolled coughing can become violent or explosive. Not only is this type of cough not effective in clearing mucus; it can also result in airway spasms or even collapse.
So, to keep breathing as well as possible, people with COPD do need to know how to cough well enough to keep the mucus moving and and prevent it from building up in the base of your lungs.
How to Minimize Mucus in the Airways & Coughing
You still need to learn how to cough in a controlled way, but there are some actions you can take that may help prevent mucus too.
- Stay hydrated. It's important for health in general to be well-hydrated. But with COPD, staying hydrated can help keep your mucus thin and easy to cough up without a lot of unnecessary effort. Try to drink 6 to 8 glasses of water a day. Yes, you will have to use the bathroom more often! But the effort it takes to walk to the bathroom is unlikely to be as great as the effort it takes to cough up thick mucus.
- Avoid known irritants.Tobacco smoke, wood smoke, strong perfumes and chemical smells can irritate your airways. That can result in a dry, hacking cough that will wear you out.
- Use a bronchodilator to relax the airways. Ask your doctor about prescribing a type of medication called a bronchodilator. This medicine will relax and widen your airways, making breathing easier and reducing the need to cough.
- Soothe your throat. If your throat is irritated, warm liquids, honey and cough drops can be soothing.
- Master breathing techniques. Learning to control your breathing with slow, deep breaths can not only relax you overall. It will also enable your airways to relax and move the mucus more effectively.
Controlling Your Coughing
Although you might find coughing to be annoying or even disruptive in certain social situations, it does serve a useful purpose. So, doctors recommend that people with COPD learn how to cough in a deep, controlled way.
Here is a technique recommended by the Cleveland Clinic:
- Sit up straight in a chair or on the side of your bed. Have both feet on the floor and lean forward a little. Take a deep breath or two to relax and ready yourself.
- Next, fold your arms across your belly and take a long, slow breath in through your nose.
- Then, lean forward more against your arms and breathe out in 2 or 3 short, sharp coughs with your mouth open. The first cough loosens the mucus and gets it moving. The next couple of coughs start to bring the mucus all the way up and out.
- After that, breathe in short, shallow breaths by kind of "sniffing" in through your nose. Gently breathing like this between coughing sessions helps keep the mucus from moving back down your airways while you recover.
- When you feel rested, repeat steps #1 through 4 until you feel as though you've gotten all the mucus up and out of your lungs and no longer are feeling a strong need to cough.
Don't Hesitate to Contact Your Doctor
Any time that your mucus changes color or consistency, you should probably call your doctor. If it's due to infection, you may need to be screened for complications and/or put on additional medication such as an antibiotic.
Also, if practicing the controlled coughing technique does not work well to clear your mucus, you may need to consult with your doctor. There are other mucus clearing devices or medications that your health care professional may want to try with you.
Where do you stand with your COPD?