If you have COPD, the first sign that something was not right was likely feeling shortness of breath, to the point that you wanted to see your doctor about it. It also could have been that incessant cough throughout the day and night.
It's easy to blame a cough on allergies or a common cold, but if it persists and becomes a regular thing, you should see your doctor to discuss the possibility of having COPD or another lung ailment. The sooner you find out if it is COPD causing your symptoms the sooner you will be able to treat the chronic illness, thereby slowing down the progression of your COPD.
The first thing that you need to understand is that coughing may seem like a symptom you want to relieve, but in the case of COPD, it actually serves a function.
Continue reading to understand how COPD and coughing are related, what you can do to ease a cough, and when to seek medical attention.
How are COPD and coughing related
If you have COPD you probably experience a persistent cough. This symptom is related to a condition of COPD called chronic bronchitis, which means that your airways are constantly irritated. This irritation is often caused by smoking or second-hand smoke, but it can also be caused by other irritants and biological factors, such as pollution or genetics.
The irritation in your airways causes two problems that prevent enough air from passing through to the lungs:
- The lining of your airways become swollen
- There is too much mucus produced by your lungs
People with chronic bronchitis can have a persistent cough because it is important to regularly clear their swollen airways of this excess mucus, which can sometimes be difficult and require extra attention and treatments, of which, we will discuss in more detail in the What you can do to ease a cough associated with COPD section of this article.
So, coughing caused by COPD is often productive and it is a natural function of your body that plays an important role in your breathing system. Coughing helps to move extra mucus out from your lungs. Coughing is also a reaction that can help remove certain irritants you may inhale into your lungs, like dust, pollution, and other common allergens.
When your cough produces mucus, which is also called sputum or phlegm, that means your body is working correctly to clear the excess mucus up through your swollen airways and into your throat and out of your mouth.
It is normal for the mucus to be clear or white, yellow, or green in color but if the mucus is very mucky, it may be a sign of a respiratory infection. We will go over this in more detail in the When you should see a doctor section
What you can do to ease a cough associated with COPD
To determine whether or not your cough needs to be treated with medication or other remedies, depends on the type of cough you are experiencing and whether or not your cough is actually helping to clear your lungs and airways.
You should consult with your doctor to determine the type of cough you are experiencing and how to deal with it going forward.
As we discussed in the section above, airway clearing coughs serves a meaningful purpose by clearing out mucus from your airways. In this case, it is best for you to continue coughing in order to avoid mucus building up in your lungs.
That being said, there are certain medications you can take as well as techniques you can learn how to perform in order to couch more effectively.
COPD and coughing medications
If your cough is due to very thick mucus, first you should try to drink more fluids. This can help make your mucus thinner and easier to clear. If this does not work well enough, then there are medicines called “expectorants” that can help make the mucus easier to cough up.
If your coughing becomes painful or difficult to control. In those cases, your doctor might recommend cough suppressants that keeps your body from coughing. These suppressants might also be used for coughs that do not produce mucus, like a dry smoker’s cough.
If you have COPD, coughing can also cause a “bronchospasm” or “spasm.” This happens when your muscles around your airways suddenly tense up causing your airways to become very narrow, This makes it even hard to breathe. To reduce coughing that causes spasms, healthcare providers might prescribe special types of inhaled medications called “bronchodilators” or inhaled steroids.
If you are not interested in getting on medication for you coughing, there are also three airways clearing techniques you can do to clear your lungs
Airway clearing techniques for COPD
One of the most effective ways to clear your airways is to use the effective, or controlled, cough technique. This cough comes from deep within your lungs and has just enough force to loosen and carry mucus through your airways without causing them to narrow or collapse. By utilizing the controlled coughing practice, you will save energy and therefore, oxygen.
- Controlled coughing: A type of cough that comes from deep in your lungs. It loosens mucus and moves it though your airways
- Postural drainage: You lie down in different positions to help drain mucus from your lungs
- Chest percussion: You lightly tap your chest and back. The tapping loosens the mucus in your lungs
To cough effectively:
- Sit on a chair or on the edge of your bed, with both feet on the floor. Lean slightly forward. Relax
- Fold your arms across your abdomen and breathe in slowly through your nose. (The power of the cough comes from moving air.)
- To exhale: lean forward, pressing your arms against your abdomen. Cough 2-3* times through a slightly open mouth. Coughs should be short and sharp. The first cough loosens the mucus and moves it through the airways. The second and third cough enables you to cough the mucus up and out.
- Breathe in again by "sniffing" slowly and gently through your nose. This gentle breath helps prevent mucus from moving back down your airways
- Perform again if needed
Here is a link to postural drainage and chest percussion treatment and how to perform these mucus clearing techniques.
Natural home remedies for helping reduce COPD induced coughing
Eucalyptus oil contains a natural compound called eucalyptol. Eucalyptol may have the following benefits for people with COPD and may ease uncomfortable coughing symptoms:
- antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
- opens up the airways in the lungs
- reduces mucus production
- helps clear mucus from the lungs
- prevents flare-ups in moderate to severe COPD
One way you can use eucalyptus oil is by adding 12 drops of eucalyptus oil to 150 milliliters of boiling water and inhaling up to three times per day.
This will not work for everyone, and if you experience any side effect of the oil, stop using it immediately.
Quit Smoking to reduce dry coughing
Smoking is the leading cause of COPD in the United States and is responsible for around 90 percent of COPD-related deaths.
Tobacco smoke is known to irritate your airways and your lungs. Smoke causes inflammation and obstruction within your airways causing them to narrow, and making it very difficult for air to pass in and out.
If you smoke, the most important step to reduce COPD related symptoms and slowing down the progression of your COPD is to stop smoking. Quitting will put an end to “smoker’s cough,” the dry, hacking cough common among people who smoke.
A deep, productive cough that clears the airways of mucus may replace this dry cough also benefiting you and your breathing.
When you should seek medical attention
Call your doctor within 24 hours if you notice:
- You’re out of breath or coughing more than usual
- Being out of breath affects your daily routine
- You’re coughing up more gunk that normal
- The mucus you are coughing up is dark yellow, dark green, or rust-colored
- You have a fever over 101 F
- You feel dizzy or lightheaded
If you begin to experience any of these symptoms it could mean that you have a respiratory infection or your COPD is getting worse.
Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you’re still out of breath after using the medicines your doctor has prescribed for your COPD.
Other symptoms associated with COPD
One of the other many symptoms of COPD we mentioned very briefly in this article was shortness of breath. When you have COPD your lungs are no longer able to process oxygen like they once did. This is partly due to the irritation in your airways that also causes coughing.
Both chronic bronchitis and emphysema can cause shortness of breath. This symptom is also called “breathlessness” or “dyspnea".
If you airways are swollen and filled with mucus, not only does this initiated a coughing reaction, but it also inhibits oxygen from flowing through your lungs and into your blood stream and organs.
Not only is this feeling extremely uncomfortable, it is also life threatening, and if it goes untreated for a long period of time, you will inevitably be taking years off of your life.
Here are positive changes you can make to improve breathing with COPD:
Learn pursed-lip breathing This is a breathing exercise designed for people with COPD: Purse your lips and blow as much air out as you can before taking a deep breath in through your pursed lips again. Then slow down your breath so that you’re using as much of your lungs as you can. This technique slows your breathing rate and helps to keep your airways open which can also help to reduced coughing episodes.
Drink plenty of water because water helps thin out mucus so you can clear it better. Some people with COPD have conditions that could be made worse by extra fluid, however some people with COPD may be very dehydrated.Speak with your doctor to find out how much water you can safely drink.
Get informed and continue learning about COPD and how your lungs function. This can help you better understand and manage your condition. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs often offer this type of education.
Exercising regularly can make a big difference in your breathing capabilities and COPD symptoms. A lot of people with COPD get more and more out of breath as their disease progresses, but it’s not due of their lung function — it's because they’re not conditioning enough. Most doctors recommend walking for people with COPD since it’s moderate in intensity and easily accessible.
Know and avoid your triggers. If you have COPD and allergies, take steps to avoid anything you’re allergic to. This may mean putting dust covers on your pillows and mattress or keeping your pets out of the bedroom. High-efficiency particulate air filters can remove dust and other irritants from the air in your home. You may also consider a humidifier if dry air triggers your symptoms.
Get your rest Many people with COPD have an underlying sleep disorder, like sleep apnea, that makes it difficult to get good sleep. When you sleep better, you’ll feel better and breathe better, so if you are not able to fall asleep, or have trouble staying asleep, speak with your doctor to understand the root of this issue so you can solve it.
Stay on a healthy diet full of nutrient-dense foods is needed with COPD to maintain strength and fight off infections. Eating healthy can help you lose weight and breathe easier. If you’re underweight, ask your doctor about the best foods to eat and if nutritional supplements are right for you.
Take your medication COPD medications can help manage symptoms, including shortness of breath so be sure you’re taking the right medications and get evaluated to make sure your lung function is as good as it can be
If you have severely low oxygen levels this is called hypoxemia, your doctor will likely prescribe you medical-grade oxygen, for home oxygen therapy. Long-term oxygen therapy has many benefits if it is used correctly and It can even help you live longer.
Low oxygen symptoms of hypoxemia vary depending upon how severe your COPD is, and how severely it affects you. If you experience any of the symptoms listed below, contact your doctors as soon as possible. If you experience more than one of the following symptoms at one time, seek medical attention immediately:
- A sense of euphoria
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid breathing
- Dizziness, lightheadedness and/or fainting spells
- Lack of coordination
- Rapid heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Visual disturbances
- A bluish tint to the lips, earlobes, and/or nail beds (cyanosis)
Hypoxemia is the main reason that people with COPD and other lung diseases are prescribed supplemental oxygen. There are a few forms of home oxygen therapy: You can opt for liquid oxygen tanks, gas cylinder tanks, or the most popular, convenient, and cheapest option a portable oxygen concentrator.
If you are a good candidate for long-term oxygen therapy, this is a blessing in disguise. While it might seem as if you lung function is declining, once you are able to utilize oxygen, your quality of life will improve drastically. When you have adjusted to the oxygen therapy, you will begin to slow the progression of you COPD as well!
Once you find the right POC for you, your bones and muscles will feel stronger and energized, you will have improved exercise tolerance, your mood and stamina will boost, your quality of sleep may improve, and so much more.
If you feel like you have experienced any of the symptoms of hypoxemia, and are curious how to find the best portable oxygen concentrator to fit you oxygen requirements, fill out the blue box to the right, it is our official guide to portable oxygen concentrators.
Cough with a Purpose
Remember, COPD-related lung damage can’t be reversed, but it can be controlled if treated properly.
We hope you and your caregivers understand more about COPD and coughing, and how avoiding coughing is not always the best option.
Now that you understand that your cough can in fact be beneficial for your health while treating COPD, we hope that you can use the information in this article to cough effectively and efficiently. These coughing techniques, mixed with medication and other home remedies should reduce the dry uncomfortable smokers cough, and influence you to cough with a purpose.
Even though this can be a pain, always feel free to excuse yourself during social gatherings, and other outings to clear mucus from your lungs and airways. This will allow you to go longer without coughing and spend more quality time with the ones you love while enjoying the things you like to do.
The more you practice these coughing techniques the more efficient you will become at clearing your airways, and therefore breathing!
If you have any questions please leave a comment on this blog below, and always feel free to share our blog with your friends and family. By explaining how beneficial your cough is for managing your COPD, they will better understand and be willing to help and encourage coughing rather than trying to help you avoid it.