When it comes to sex and gender-related differences in COPD, women certainly seem to get the short end of the stick. Studies show that women not only tend to be more prone to getting COPD, but also suffer from worse symptoms, later diagnoses, and other COPD-related health problems more often than men.
This is a relatively new revelation; back in the day, COPD used to be known as a “man's disease,” and very little was known about COPD in women. Before the early to mid 1900's, the vast majority of tobacco smokers were men, and it was rare for women to smoke or develop smoking-related diseases like COPD.
This isn't true anymore, however, and the trend seems to flipping in the opposite direction as more women than ever have been diagnosed with COPD in recent years. This shift has made it possible for researchers to study COPD in women more extensively, and this research has revealed some significant—and surprising—differences in how women are affected by this disease.
Some of these differences between men and women have biological origins, including differences in lung anatomy and how men's and women's bodies are affected by COPD. On the other hand, some differences originate from within the healthcare system, which (often unwittingly) tends to treat men and women differently during diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment for COPD.
Unfortunately, many of these disparities result in extra risks and disadvantages for women, including later COPD diagnoses, quicker lung function decline, and even a higher risk of death. However, many of these risks can be mitigated with simple preventative measures and increased awareness of these risks among doctors, caretakers, and people with COPD.
In this post, we're going to take a closer look at the scope and the nature of the problems that women with COPD face in regard to their symptoms, their healthcare, and the impact of the disease. Most importantly, we also present dozens of practical strategies—and links to other helpful resources—that women with COPD can use to minimize these extra risks.
All women with COPD deserve to know how the disease might affect them differently and what they can do in response. Knowledge is power, and the more you learn, the more empowered you will be to take control of your health and live your best life possible with COPD.
The Major COPD Risks that Affect Women, and What You Can Do About Them
In the following sections, we'll explain eight major challenges that women with COPD encounter and explore some of the biological and structural reasons for why these issues tend to affect women more than men. You'll also find a plethora of helpful tips throughout this guide for how women can overcome these challenges and get better outcomes for their health.
If you are a woman with COPD, or know someone who is, we hope that this guide will serve as a helpful tool for managing the gender-specific risks that come with the disease. For more information on COPD management, including more information about sex differences among people with COPD, check out our huge collection of helpful guides in our Respiratory Resource Center.
A quick note: We understand that sex and gender are not one and the same, and that COPD differences intersect both gender and sex. For the sake of brevity and simplicity, however, we use these terms interchangeably—or use one term to refer to both concepts at once—at times in this guide.
Women's Lungs Are More Sensitive to Damage from Smoking
How heavily someone smokes throughout their lifetime—a factor that's often measured in “pack years—influences how severe their COPD-related lung damage is later in life. For example, a person with COPD who smoked one pack of cigarettes every day for 10 years (which is the equivalent of 10 pack years of smoking) will likely have more severe lung damage than someone who only smoked half a pack a day for 10 years (equivalent to 5 pack years of smoking).
Unfortunately, research suggests that women's lungs are more vulnerable than men's to the damaging effects of tobacco smoke. This not only makes women more vulnerable to developing COPD, but also causes women to develop more severe COPD than men who have an equivalent number of pack years.
One study, for example, found that women who smoke less than men have nearly the same amount of measurable emphysema (i.e. damaged air sacs in the lungs). This was true even though the men had smoked significantly more—four more cigarettes per day, on average—than the women in the study.
It's important to note that, as a whole, men actually tend to have worse emphysema than women. However, research suggests that this is largely due to the fact that men tend to smoke more heavily; on average, male smokers in the US have a whopping 33% more pack-years than women, with women averaging 15 pack years and men averaging 20.
However, women still sustain a disproportionately large amount of lung damage despite smoking less—and even starting smoking later—than men. While researchers aren't exactly sure why this happens, they believe this phenomenon could be the result of certain biological features in women that predispose their lungs to smoking-related damage.
These biological features include female hormones like estrogen and progesterone, which have been shown to play a role in how the lungs respond to cigarette smoke. Women also tend to have smaller airway spaces than men, which some researchers believe could result in the airways getting a higher dose of toxins when they're exposed to cigarette smoke.
This effect might not be limited to smoking, however; some studies suggest that women's lungs might be more sensitive to other kinds of respiratory hazards, like air pollution, chemical fumes, and second-hand smoke. This is bolstered by the fact that even women who have never smoked before in their lives get COPD at significantly higher rates than men who have never smoked; nearly 80% of nonsmokers with COPD are women.
What Women with COPD Can Do About It:
If you are a woman who smokes, quitting smoking is one of the best possible things you can do for your health. There's no way to reverse the damage that's already done, but you can prevent additional damage—and reap a ton of other benefits—if you stop smoking now.
Check out the following guides to learn everything you've ever wanted to know about quitting smoking:
- How to Quit Smoking Part 1: Overcoming Doubts & Finding Resources to Help You Quit
- How to Quit Smoking Part 2: Coping with Nicotine Withdrawal & Choosing a Quit-Smoking Medication
- How to Quit Smoking Part 3: Taking the First Steps & Strategies for Staying Smoke Free
Protect Your Lungs from Potential Hazards
Women should also be extra careful about exposing their lungs to other respiratory hazards, since they seem to be extra vulnerable to their damaging effects. For example, women—like all people—should avoid hazardous occupations (e.g. jobs that expose you to exhaust fumes or dust) and take steps to reduce indoor air pollution in their homes (e.g. avoid using wood-burning stoves, noxious chemicals, and other products that release harmful fumes indoors).
Protecting your lungs from these hazards can also help prevent irritation, inflammation, and flare-ups that make COPD symptoms harder to control. It can also reduce your risk for COPD exacerbations, which can cause additional, permanent lung damage and lung function decline.
We'll discuss more about how to avoid common respiratory hazards (and link you to several in-depth guides on the topic) in the sections below.
Women Have a Higher Risk of Getting COPD than Men
As we discussed in the previous section, women's lungs tend to be more vulnerable to respiratory irritants than men and tend to sustain more lung damage from each cigarette they smoke. Therefore, it should be no surprise that this causes women to have an overall higher risk for developing COPD than men.
Research suggests that this difference is quite significant; one large systematic review found that women who smoke are fifty percent more likely to get COPD than men who smoke. Other studies show that women tend to be more likely to get COPD from lesser amounts of smoking, and also tend to develop COPD earlier in life.
However, because COPD is such a complicated disease that usually develops years after the exposure that causes it, pinning down the exact reason for gender differences in COPD risk difficult. In addition to biological factors, there are likely a variety of social, lifestyle, and demographic factors at play, such as: gender-related differences in healthcare accessibility, healthcare quality, smoking behaviors, geographical location, and more.
What Women with COPD Can Do About It:
Take Good Care of Your Lungs
The only reliable way to reduce your risk for COPD is to protect your lungs from smoke and other respiratory irritants (like air pollution) throughout your lifetime. The more frequently your lungs are exposed to and inflamed by respiratory hazards, the more you put yourself at risk for lung diseases like COPD.
Because women are more susceptible to COPD, women should be extra careful about what they breathe into their lungs. That means not smoking, or quitting if you do, and doing your best to breathe clean, pollutant-free air as much as possible.
Of course, there's only so much you can do about certain respiratory irritants like outdoor air pollution. But even if you live in a place with low air quality, you can still take steps to reduce how much air pollution breathe (e.g. planning outdoor activities for times when your local air pollution is low).
Here is a list of some of the major respiratory irritants that can increase your risk for COPD:
- Second-hand smoke
- Any kind of smoke or combustion fumes (e.g. smoke from fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, car exhaust, cooking fumes, etc.)
- Radon gas (a common radioactive gas found in homes that can only be detected with a proper radon test)
- Common commercial cleaning and pest-control products
- Many crafting, renovation, and construction materials, including paints, treated lumber, adhesives, solvents, new carpets and flooring, etc.
- Occupational hazards like dust, chemical fumes, and diesel exhaust
It's worth mentioning that, even though any kind of respiratory irritant can be dangerous if you're exposed to it long term, smoking is by far the biggest hazard and the most important one to avoid. Smoking is responsible for more cases of COPD than anything else; a full 85 to 90 percent of all COPD cases are caused by smoking.
Check out the following guides for even more tips about what you can do to avoid respiratory irritants and reduce your risk for COPD:
- How Volatile Organic Compounds Harm Your Lungs, and How to Avoid Them
- How to Cope with Poor Outdoor Air Quality
- How to Protect a Child from Lung Diseases Like COPD
Reduce Sources of Pollution in Your Home
Even though we've already stressed the importance of avoiding respiratory irritants, it's important to discuss indoor air pollution specifically, especially since women tend to be exposed to this type of pollution the most. That's because, even in modern times, women tend to spend more time than men at home doing household tasks that could be hazardous to their lungs.
Cooking and cleaning, for example, two major sources of exposure to respiratory irritants at home. In fact, research shows that non-smoking women who cook more often—and have smokier kitchens when they cook—are more likely to develop COPD.
Fumes from cleaning products, especially chemicals like ammonia and bleach, can also damage your lungs and increase your risk for COPD. Luckily, there are many things you can do to reduce the risks from cooking and cleaning, but you need to do them consistently to keep the air in your home clean.
One of the best things you can do is establish a good ventilation system in your kitchen and any rooms you use chemicals to clean. The goal is to create an air flow that funnels the fumes outdoors, and you can do this with a fume hood (e.g. above your kitchen stove), a ventilation fan (which many bathrooms have pre-installed), or simply by opening up some windows to allow the fumes to escape.
You can also reduce your exposure to chemical irritants by being more selective about what kinds of products you use. Many household cleaning products can be hazardous, so it's a good idea to look at the labels of everything you buy and try to find alternative products that are safer for your lungs.
These are just a few of many possible steps you can take to keep your indoor air as clean as possible. For more tips about how to cook and clean more safely and reduce other sources of air pollution in your home, check out the following guides from our Respiratory Resource Center:
- How to Improve Your Indoor Air Quality for COPD
- How Cleaning Products Can Damage Your Lungs, and What You Can Do to Prevent It
- Your Complete Guide to Choosing an Indoor Air Filter to Improve Your COPD Symptoms
- Spring Cleaning Tips for Healthy Lungs & COPD
Women are Less Likely to Receive a Correct COPD Diagnosis
Unfortunately, women with COPD tend to be disadvantaged in the US healthcare system, and the problem begins at the very first step: women with COPD are less likely to get an accurate COPD diagnosis, more likely to get misdiagnosed with asthma, and tend to get diagnosed later (as in after the disease has progressed further) than men.
One of the main reasons for these discrepancies seems to be doctor bias that affects how they evaluate men vs. women with symptoms that could be a sign of COPD. As a result, women with COPD symptoms are less likely to receive a spirometry test than men, which is likely the primary reason that women are under-diagnosed compared to men.
|Image from jmarchn|
Spirometry tests are the most powerful tool that doctors have to diagnose COPD, and getting one is vital for an accurate COPD diagnosis. In fact, research shows that the gap between COPD diagnosis rates in men versus women is reduced when doctors have spirometry test data to help them make their diagnoses.
This suggests that, if doctors just did spirometry testing in a more consistent manner, they could significantly reduce or eliminate the diagnosis divide between women and men. However, while this might sound simple, it's not such an easy task; this issue is part of a wider problem of gender bias in healthcare that sees women disadvantaged in a wide range of different ways.
Fortunately, these long-standing issues have received a lot more attention in recent years. As doctors and researchers continue to investigate these gender biases in healthcare, they can develop new strategies for addressing them and reducing the negative effects they have on patients.
What Women with COPD Can Do About It:
Be on the Look Out for COPD Symptoms
|Image from Laura Reen|
Women, and especially women who have risk factors for lung disease, need to be on the lookout for signs of COPD as they age. Never ignore any long-term changes in your respiratory symptoms, especially persistent coughing or shortness of breath.
If you do notice any changes, makes sure to bring them up with your doctor as soon as soon as possible after they occur. The earlier you get diagnosed, the earlier you can get treatment that can improve your quality of life and the long-term outlook for your health.
To learn more about how to recognize the early symptoms of COPD, check out the following guides:
Advocate for Yourself
Ideally, every doctor would always treat men and women equally and would know how to properly diagnose COPD in women just as well as men. However, this is unfortunately not the case, and the responsibility often falls instead on women patients to advocate for themselves.
Unfortunately, this isn't always easy to do, especially if you (like many people) find medical professionals intimidating or simply have trouble speaking up at the right times. Luckily, being a good self-advocate is something you can learn, and you can even enlist others to help you if you need.
One way to become a better self-advocate is to be more pro-active about your health in general. That means educating yourself about your body and common disease symptoms, and being diligent about bringing things up with your doctor if you have any symptoms or concerns.
It could also mean standing up for yourself if a medical professional doesn't take your concerns seriously. If you think that something you're worried about needs to be looked into further, don't rely on your doctor bring up the next step; if you go to your doctor with persistent respiratory symptoms, for example, you might need to ask your doctor specifically to do a diagnostic spirometry test.
If you're unable to advocate for yourself for any reason, or simply need some backup, you can always bring someone else to advocate on your behalf. Sometimes, two voices are more effective than one at getting stubborn healthcare professionals to listen to your needs.
It's also important for women to be aware of doctors potential biases and find a doctor they can trust. Your doctor should be someone who listens, respects your concerns, and never ignores or belittles your symptoms.
To learn more about how people with COPD can better advocate for themselves, check out our guide When COPD is Invisible: How to Get the Help and Support You Need.
Find a Doctor You Can Trust
Your doctor should be someone that listens to you, treats you with respect, and takes the time to explain things you don't understand. A good doctor-patient relationship is a two-way street of trust and conversation that makes you feel comfortable enough to share intimate details about your health.
If your current doctor falls short, or if you're not happy with your doctor for any reason, don't be afraid to “shop around” and find a new professional that better suits your needs. Your doctor plays a huge role in your health—especially in older age and when you're managing a chronic disease like COPD—and you don't want to sell yourself short.
To learn more about what you should expect from your doctor and other members of your healthcare team, check out our guide on getting to know your COPD treatment team.
Women with COPD Have Quicker Lung Function Decline
Lung function decline is a fundamental characteristic of COPD, and everyone with COPD gradually loses a significant amount of lung function over time. However, COPD patients vary in both how much lung function they lose and in how quickly this loss occurs.
Research comparing lung function loss in men and women with COPD suggests that women's lung function declines quicker than men's. They also experience greater per-year losses in lung function, adding to the evidence that COPD tends to progress faster in women.
This makes sense given that we know women tend to be more susceptible to COPD-related lung damage than men. This is also in line with research that shows women have worse COPD symptoms and higher rates of death, two problems we'll discuss in more detail a bit later in this guide.
What Women with COPD Can Do About It:
Unfortunately, lung function decline is an inevitable fact of living with COPD, and there is no way to prevent it completely. However, research suggests that it is possible to slow down the rate of lung function loss.
In general, effective COPD management and symptom control seems to help some people with COPD maintain their lung function for longer or at least delay more rapid decline. However, despite some promising prospects, experts still aren't sure whether any method can offer significant and reliable results over the long term.
The following list explains briefly some specific things that experts believe might help reduce the speed of lung function decline in people with COPD:
- Early Diagnosis and Treatment: The earlier you get diagnosed, the sooner you can start treatment for COPD and make other healthy lifestyle changes that some research suggests might “postpone the progression of the disease.”
- Quitting Smoking: Continuing to smoke after being diagnosed with COPD causes additional lung damage and more rapid lung function loss, while research suggests that quitting can slow down the rate of excessive lung function decline.
- Preventing COPD Exacerbations: Serious exacerbations can damage your lungs irreversibly, causing a permanent decrease in lung function and an increase in baseline COPD symptoms, while research suggests that taking steps to reduce the frequency of exacerbations (e.g. preventative methods like vaccination and inhaled steroid medications) could hep prevent excess lung function loss.
- Avoiding Respiratory Irritants: Frequently breathing in respiratory irritants like air pollution can have a detrimental effects on your lungs over time; it worsens COPD symptoms, increase your risk for exacerbations, reduce your lung function, and increase your risk for death.
- Getting Adequate Exercise: Exercise strengthens your respiratory system and is a vital part of staying health with COPD; it may also have a protective effect on the lungs that reduces lung function decline.
- Following Your Treatment Regimen: Research shows that COPD medications can slow down lung function decline at least a little; on the other hand, failing to take your medications or use your inhaler properly can lead to quicker lung function loss as well as an increased risk for complications like COPD exacerbations.
It's important to realize that, for most of the treatments on this list, research has only established a correlation between the treatment and slower lung function loss. In other words, all we know is that COPD patients who do the things on this list tend to lose lung function less quickly than COPD patients who don't.
In many cases, unfortunately, we don't know for sure what caused lung function loss to slow down in those patients. It could be the treatment itself, or it could be another factor (or a group of several factors) causing the slow-down in lung function loss via a mechanism that we don't yet fully understand.
It's also important to note that every person with COPD is different, and lung function loss is a complex problem that doesn't have a clear or reliable solution yet. Some strategies might work for some people, but it's not always possible to alter the “natural” course of COPD-related lung function decline.
Women Tend to Get More Severe COPD Symptoms
Since women with COPD tend to have quicker lung function decline than men, it makes sense that women's COPD symptoms would be worse, too. Research shows that this is, unfortunately, true; not only do women have more severe COPD symptoms in general, but they also suffer from more frequent exacerbations, a greater degree of functional impairment (e.g. poorer mobility and less physical independence), and a worse quality of life than men with COPD.
Women and men also differ in the types of symptoms they tend to get. For example, there are notable differences in how much emphysema and chronic bronchitis that men and women with COPD have.
Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are both sub-types of COPD, and most COPD patients have both types to some degree. However, studies show that women with COPD tend to have more characteristics of chronic bronchitis, while men tend to have more characteristics of emphysema.
|Image from BruceBlaus on Wikipedia.||Image from Blausen Medical Communications, Inc.|
Here's a brief explanation for how these two COPD sub-types differ:
- Chronic bronchitis—which tends to affect women more than men—damages the large airways of your respiratory system (the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs), causing inflammation, excess mucus production, airflow obstruction, and symptoms like chronic coughing and coughing up phlegm.
- Emphysema—which tends to affect men more than women—damages your air sacs (which are deeper in the lungs) by destroying their delicate structure and elasticity; this makes it more difficult for the lungs to absorb oxygen and empty air from the lungs, causing symptoms like shortness of breath and lung hyperinflation.
To learn more about the differences between emphysema and chronic bronchitis, check out our guide on the topic here.
What Women with COPD Can Do About It:
Keeping COPD symptoms under control is a delicate art that depends on a plethora of individual factors. There is no one “standard” for COPD treatment, but rather sets of guidelines to help doctors determine what combination of treatments will likely benefit their patient the most.
That's why many COPD patients rely on individualized treatment plans to help them manage their symptoms and keep symptom flare-ups under control. A typical treatment plan given to COPD patients looks something like this (PDF link), and how well it works depends heavily on how well the patient understands and sticks to their plan.
If you fully commit to your treatment and always follow your doctor's instructions, it helps to minimize your symptoms and keep them more stable over time. You may also be able to reduce your COPD symptoms by making healthy lifestyle changes like getting more exercise, eating a nutritious diet, and maintaining a healthy BMI.
For more tips on how to reduce your COPD symptoms, check out the following guides from our Respiratory Resource Center:
- 9 Tips for Reducing Morning COPD Symptoms
- How to Manage Your COPD Symptoms Better in the Summer
- How Your COPD Inhaler Helps You Manage Your Symptoms
- How Good Posture Can Improve Your COPD Symptoms
- 11 Tips for Reducing Chest and Rib Pain Caused by COPD
Women with COPD Have a Higher Risk for Osteoporosis
|Image from BruceBlaus on Wikipedia.|
COPD in is a known risk factor for osteoporosis (bone-thinning) in both men and women. This is likely the result of several COPD-related factors, including: malnutrition, lack of exercise, medication side effects, a history of smoking, and systemic inflammation that affects the whole body (including the bones).
Unfortunately, women women over the age of 50 are about four times more likely to get osteoporosis than men. For women with COPD the odds are even worse; in one large osteoporosis study, women who had COPD were 50% more likely to suffer from osteoporosis than women without COPD.
What Women with COPD Can Do About It
Eat a Healthy Diet
Not getting enough vitamin D and/or Calcium is a major cause of osteoporosis, and Vitamin D deficiency happens to be particularly common in people with COPD. Luckily, nutrient deficiencies have a pretty simple solution: a well-balanced diet and supplements, if necessary.
Unfortunately, dietary changes aren't so easy for some people with COPD, especially those who are underweight or malnourished. Many people with advanced COPD struggle to get enough nutrients from their diet because symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath can make it difficult to eat.
Luckily, there are many strategies that people with COPD can use to make eating more comfortable, such as not drinking beverages during mealtimes and eating smaller portions of food more often throughout the day. To learn more, about how to eat, cook, and manage your diet more effectively with COPD, check out the links below:
- 21 Healthy Foods for People with COPD
- Foods You Should Avoid if You Have COPD
- 21 Healthy Meal Ideas and Diet Tips for People with COPD
Get More Sunshine
When bright sunlight touches your skin, it stimulates your body's natural vitamin D production process, making it a great source of vitamin D. In fact, you can get all of your necessary vitamin D from sunlight if you live in a place that's sunny enough; at mid-day during the summer—when the sun is brightest—you only need to spend about 10-15 minutes in the sun for three days per week to meet your body's vitamin D needs.
Check out our guide on dietary supplements and COPD for more tips about how to avoid vitamin D deficiencies and to learn more about the important role that the vitamin plays in your health.
Be Extra Careful with Corticosteroid Medications
|Image from ParentingPatch.|
Taking corticosteroids can also increase your risk for osteoporosis, and both inhaled and oral corticosteroids are frequently used to treat COPD. Fortunately, most doctors are keenly aware of the risks of corticosteroids and follow prescribing guidelines that minimize those risks.
If you are a woman with COPD and your doctor prescribes you any kind of corticosteroid, it's important to discuss the possible benefits, risks, and side effects. You should also be careful to follow your doctor's instructions for the corticosteroid medication exactly, especially if your doctor prescribes you a course of oral steroids to use as-needed for COPD exacerbations.
If you use a corticosteroid inhaler (or a combination inhaler containing a corticosteroid medication), it's important to follow all of the steps for proper inhaler use. Most corticosteroid inhalers instruct you to rinse your mouth out after you use them, which gets rid of excess medication and prevents unpleasant side effects.
To learn more about corticosteroids, including the risks and benefits of different corticosteroid treatments, check out our guide on this topic here.
Exercise is not only an important part of staying healthy with COPD, but it's also a vital tool for preventing osteoporosis. Bones are living tissues that depend on regular physical activity to keep them healthy and strong.
Research shows that consistent exercise helps maintain bone density and even slow down the rate of bone density loss in older age. And even though COPD can make exercise harder to do, there are still plenty of strategies and programs out there to help you get started, no matter your fitness level.
To learn more about strategies and resources for exercising with COPD, check out the following guides:
- How to Improve Your Exercise Tolerance And Quality of Life with COPD
- How to Exercise at Home Effectively with COPD
- 6 Breathing Techniques that Make it Easier to Exercise with COPD
- Pulmonary Rehab: A Tailored Exercise Program for COPD
- How to Practice Pulmonary Rehabilitation at Home
Smoking can have detrimental effects on the health of your bones, and it's yet another osteoporosis risk factor that you have the ability to control. Research shows that smoking is associated with bone density loss, an increased risk for fractures, and slower bone healing, especially in older adults.
This is just one the many, many reasons you should quit smoking, particularly if you're a woman with COPD. If you need some extra motivation to kick the habit, check out our post on the benefits of quitting smoking to see what you could gain if you quit.
Women with COPD Suffer from Anxiety and Depression More Than Men
Living with a chronic illness can be difficult to bear, and it's common for people with COPD to have psychological illnesses like anxiety and depression. However, women seem to suffer from these conditions the most; in one study, for instance, women participants were twenty-three percent more likely to have depression than men, and were more than thirteen percent more likely to have anxiety.
Unfortunately, mental illnesses like anxiety and depression are not just painful to live with, but they can have detrimental health consequences for women with COPD. Untreated mental illness can lead to a spiral of physical decline and a significantly worse quality of life for COPD patients.
This is partially due to the fact that anxiety and depression can make it extra difficult to keep up with healthy habits like exercise, quitting smoking, and taking your medications correctly. This, in turn, leads to a variety of other health and disease complications, including loss of physical mobility, worse COPD symptoms, and possibly even more frequent COPD exacerbations.
What Women with COPD Can Do About It:
Find a Support Community
COPD can be a worrisome and isolating disease to live with, which is why it's vital for every person with COPD to have a source of social support. This is especially key for women, who—thanks to a history of COPD mostly affecting men—still sometimes experience a sense of erasure and being misunderstood.
Whether you go to your friends, your family, a support group, or an online COPD community, make sure you have someone to share your worries and struggles with. Just having someone to listen and bounce your thoughts off of can make it easier to cope.
It can also help to recruit some friends and family to help you out when you feel too tired or stressed, ideally before you get too overwhelmed. Getting someone else to take care of even a couple simple things—such as rides to doctor's appointments or little tasks around the house—can take a significant amount of weight off your chest.
To learn more about what kinds of COPD support resources are out there and how you can join in, check our guide to online COPD communities.
Be Diligent About Self Care
When you're living with a chronic health condition like COPD, it can be difficult to keep up with the things that make you happy. But even when it's hard, you should do your best not to let your life get too overwhelmed by all the changes, responsibilities, and worries that come with chronic disease.
Whenever possible, try to take some time every day to focus on yourself, even if it's just some quiet time with a book or a long, luxurious bubble bath. Don't give up on your hobbies either; even if your COPD makes some activities difficult, always be on the lookout for creative ways you can still participate or make activities more accessible to you and your physical needs.
See a Mental Health Expert
|Image from Victoruler|
If you have trouble managing your emotions and mental health on your own, you're definitely not alone. Lots of people need psychological help for one problem or another, and chronic disease is an especially huge problem that most people can't cope with alone.
That's why, if you have COPD, it's a good idea to seek guidance from a mental health professional. Seeing a psychologist or therapist can help you develop healthy ways of thinking and coping, and serve as an extra means of support when you go through challenging times.
To learn more about how to take care of your mental health with COPD, check out the following links:
- How to Cope with COPD-Related Anxiety and Find Peace of Mind
- How to Handle the Emotional Aspects of COPD
- COPD and Panic Attacks: How to Manage Sudden Bouts of Anxiety and Panic
Women with COPD Have a Higher Risk for Exacerbations and Hospitalizations
|Image from Vincent Le Moign|
We already know that women with COPD tend to have worse COPD symptoms and quicker lung function decline, so it stands to reason that women might fare worse in other long-term outcomes, too. And this seems to be true; studies show that—when adjusted for pack years of smoking—women with COPD are more likely than men to have COPD exacerbations, more likely to be hospitalized, and possibly even more likely to die from COPD.
One study found that women were 17% more likely than men experience a moderate or severe exacerbation. This is true even when the women in the study had milder COPD than the men, suggesting that women have more frequent exacerbations at every stage of the disease.
Women with COPD are also more likely to be hospitalized than men, which makes sense because women have more COPD exacerbations, and exacerbations are the most common reason why someone needs to be hospitalized for COPD. Other studies have found that women with COPD also tend to have longer hospital stays than men with COPD.
Exacerbations and hospitalizations are also important indicators of how severe your COPD is, and they can help predict your risk for other COPD complications. While the relationships between these variables are complex, research shows that, in general, people with COPD who are hospitalized for exacerbations more frequently tend to have poorer lung function, a higher risk for future exacerbations, a higher risk for future hospitalizations, and a higher risk of death.
What Women with COPD Can Do About It
Keep Your COPD Under Control
You can't always avoid hospitalization, nor can you cheat death; however, you can reduce your risk for both of these things if you properly manage your COPD. That means living a healthy, smoke-free lifestyle, adhering to your COPD treatment plan, and working on all of the other healthy lifestyle habits we've discussed in this guide.
If you'd like to learn more about how to manage your COPD better, check out the following guides for plenty of helpful tips:
- How to Manage Your COPD Better with a COPD Action Plan
- How to Take COPD Medications Correctly and Adhere to Your Treatment Plan
- How to Manage Common COPD Complications
- How to Set Goals to Improve Your Life with COPD
Do What You Can to Prevent COPD Exacerbations
Managing your health and your symptoms effectively is also key for preventing COPD exacerbations, which are the number one reason (PDF link) why people end up needing to be hospitalized for COPD. COPD exacerbations are also a significant cause of mortality and other disease complications, including quicker lung function decline.
Most COPD exacerbations are caused by illnesses and infections, which is why one of the most important things you can do to prevent COPD exacerbations is to avoid getting sick. That means practicing good personal hygiene, getting your yearly flu shot, and keeping up with other vaccinations (including an extra pneumonia vaccination after the age of 65).
To learn more about what you can do to prevent COPD exacerbations, check out the following guides from our Respiratory Resource Center:
- 15 Practical Ways to Prevent COPD Exacerbations
- How Poor Sleep Quality Can Increase Your Risk for Exacerbations
- How to Practice Good Personal Hygiene to Improve Your Health with COPD
- How Steroids can Prevent COPD Flare Ups and Help You Recover from Exacerbations
Catch Exacerbations Early
|Image from Eva Icons|
COPD exacerbations usually start out as minor flare-ups, but they can get much worse very quickly. However, if you treat an exacerbation before it becomes severe, you can significantly reduce how bad it becomes.
That's why you should always keep track of your COPD symptoms and keep an eye out for any changes that could signal that an exacerbation is coming on. For example, if your symptoms start to get worse and stay that way for awhile (more than a day or two), it could be a sign that you're having an exacerbation.
When this happens, you should follow the relevant steps on your COPD action plan and call your doctor if needed. If you don't have a COPD action plan that includes instructions for what to do when your symptoms get worse, you should ask your doctor to make you one to keep at home.
A good COPD action plan includes details like: when you should call your doctor about a flare-up, whether or not you should adjust your physical activities during a flare-up, and when when—if ever—you should make a change to your medication regimen to combat an oncoming exacerbation. However, it's not enough to have an action plan, you need to know how to interpret it and use it correctly in accordance with your symptoms each day.
To learn more about how to manage COPD exacerbations, check out the following guides:
- 7 Tips to Help You Recover from a COPD Exacerbation Fast
- How Antibiotics Help Your Recover from COPD Exacerbations
Unfortunately, sex- and gender-related differences exist in many aspects of healthcare, from diagnosis to treatment and even in how men's and women's bodies are affected by disease. These differences have real and tangible effects on patients' lives, and—in the case of COPD—result in significant disparities between men's and women's treatment outcomes, including mortality rates.
This is why it's so important for both doctors and patients alike to gain a better understanding of the differences between COPD in men and women. Acknowledging these differences in experiences and outcomes helps us learn how to manage diseases better in general and ensure that everyone gets the best treatment possible, regardless of what age, sex, gender, or other group a person belongs to.
The goal of this guide is to help women with COPD (and those who care for them) not only understand the disease-related problems that affect them the most, but also feel feel more confident in their ability manage and overcome those challenges. To that end, we've discussed a variety of different ways that women can manage these problems on their own, including strategies for managing symptoms, tips for preventing lung damage, and advice for how to advocate more aggressively for your own healthcare needs.
These strategies can help women not only improve their health and disease prognosis, but also live an overall better quality of life with COPD. We hope that the information in this guide will enable more women with COPD to face their disease-related challenges head-on take control over their own health.