Tips for Staying Healthy With Stage 3/Severe COPD
Last updated: October 2020
COPD is a chronic inflammatory illness of the lungs and airways that gets progressively worse over time. How long that takes can vary from months to years. Eventually, though, most people who have a diagnosis of COPD will end up in Stage 3, which is also called "severe COPD." For the purposes of assessment and treatment, COPD status is divided into four stages:
- Stage 1: Mild COPD
- Stage 2: Moderate COPD
- Stage 3: Severe COPD
- Stage 4: Very Severe, or End-Stage, COPD
When you have COPD that has progressed to this stage, your symptoms have gotten severe enough that they begin to regularly interfere with your ability to carry out your daily self-care activities. The following symptoms are persistent, despite treatment, and may even result in repeated hospitalizations:
Even at this severe stage, there are still actions that you can take that will help you feel better, stay as independent as possible and slow down further progression.
Quit the tobacco habit
It's not uncommon for people with COPD to feel as though there are no real benefits to quitting smoking once they get to Stage III. They are right that quitting now is not going to cure their disease or make COPD a whole lot better.
What it will do, though, is help prevent COPD symptoms and respiratory health status from getting worse. At the very least, quitting will at least prevent your COPD from progressing as quickly.
Keep in mind, too, that smoking can trigger an exacerbation, or flare-up of your COPD. Flare-ups are not fun to endure and can even land you in the hospital. So, if stopping smoking now could prevent that from happening, wouldn't it be worth it?
Quitting smoking isn't easy. Tobacco is a powerful physical and emotional addiction. But, with your health care team's help, you can do it. Put a plan together, gather your supports and take the steps that will improve your overall quality of life.
Follow your medication plan
In the severe stage of COPD, medication becomes increasingly important. If your symptoms are not well-controlled, you may need to talk with your doctor about adjusting your medications. Perhaps you need to try a different type of medication or increase your dosage.
Or, the doctor may want to try two or more medications that have different modes of action. There are also medications available that treat COPD sufferers who are resistant to the more traditional COPD treatments.
It's also important to be sure that you keep your rescue inhaler, a short-acting bronchodilator, close by you at all times, so that if you get an uncontrollable bout of coughing or severe shortness of breath during activity, you can get some relief right away.
Protect yourself from respiratory infections
When you have severe COPD, you have a greatly increased risk of respiratory infections. And even mild infections can quickly lead to serious complications.
The flu and pneumonia, though, are your greatest enemy when it comes to infection. Both are largely preventable, but if you become infected, it can threaten your health and even your life.
Every person with COPD should have a yearly flu shot. Although flu shots can't prevent every strain of flu circulating each winter, they can greatly lessen the severity of your illness and the length of time it takes you to recover.
Pneumonia vaccines are also important and are given every 5 to 10 years, as a rule. You can talk with your doctor about when and if you need to get or update your pneumonia vaccine.
It’s also smart to avoid coming into contact with people who have colds, flu and pneumonia when you have COPD, if you can.
Might be time for supplemental oxygen
Recent changes in treatment guidelines suggest that supplemental oxygen is not really that needed or helpful in the earlier stages of COPD. However, once you get to the severe stage, there can be real benefits to adding in oxygen as part of the treatment plan.
Because your lungs are now working so inefficiently, you may not be getting enough oxygen into your body. That only worsens your symptoms, as well as your overall fatigue and exhaustion. Supplemental oxygen can improve the amount of oxygen getting into your cells. It can also help you feel better and have more energy.
Some people will only use oxygen part of the time, while others will benefit from having it run continuously. Your doctor will help you decide which will benefit you most. The important thing is to follow your doctor's and respiratory therapist's instructions carefully for using oxygen.
Some people benefit from more aggressive therapies
Stem cell therapy is a very new treatment now being offered to some people with COPD. Studies have shown that stem cells can greatly reduce the chronic airway inflammation in people who have COPD.
Stem cells are basic building block cells found in both the blood and bone marrow. They are harvested, and then re-injected into the bloodstream through an intravenous line. Eventually, they settle in the lungs and start to do their work. Talk with your doctor to find out if this might be helpful in your case.
Another more invasive therapy is surgery, such as:
- Lung volume reduction
- Lung transplant
Not everyone will benefit from surgery, but some people will. Your doctor can help you decide if this is the right strategy for you.
Continue or initiate pulmonary rehabilitation
Pulmonary rehab can be especially helpful after lung surgery, but even if you have not had surgery, this team-centered approach can be beneficial in dealing with the effects of COPD.
In these types of programs, you might work with a nutritionist, physician, respiratory therapist, counselor, nurse and other professionals. The program will be focused on:
- Exercise training
- Nutritional counseling
- Education about your COPD and how to manage it
- Energy-conserving techniques
- Breathing techniques
- Psychological counseling and/or group support
You'll learn how to function better in your daily life and how to manage your COPD in the most effective ways.
Lifestyle modifications may help
Making healthy living choices every day is a smart thing to do whether you have COPD or not. But, when you have COPD, eating healthy foods rich in antioxidants and nutrients can give your body more energy.
Getting plenty of sleep and balancing rest with activity can help you cope with the fatigue and exhaustion common at this stage.
Other steps that can help you feel better and cope effectively with your disease include:
- Limiting alcohol intake
- Drinking enough fluids
- Staying as active as you can
- Building a strong social support system
Work with your healthcare team
When you get to stage 3 of COPD, it's easy to get discouraged. But there are still positive actions you can take to help keep COPD from taking over your life and preventing you from finding joy in the people and things around you.
Work closely with your health care team to modify your treatment plan so that you can still have the best quality of life possible.
Where do you stand with your COPD?