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7 Ways to Control COPD Triggers

Smoking, pollution and lung infections are among the culprits

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    En español | Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is an umbrella term for a group of disorders that damage the lungs and reduce the flow of air through the airways. There is no cure for COPD, but new treatments and programs that include exercise, education and support significantly improve quality of life. "The diseases involved include emphysema, chronic bronchitis and certain forms of asthma," says Neil Schachter, M.D., a pulmonologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. Exposure to lung irritants, referred to as 'triggers,' cause symptoms that worsen suddenly. These attacks are called COPD exacerbations, or flare-ups. Here are seven common triggers.

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    Infections

    Viral and bacterial lung infections are the most common cause of flare-ups. Viruses that cause the ordinary cold, flu and acute bronchitis, and bacteria responsible for pneumonia and flu can all bring on lung infections that last longer and make symptoms worse. How to manage: Adults with COPD have a higher risk of complications from diseases that could be prevented with vaccines. An annual flu shot clearly reduces the number of flare-ups. Also plan on have a pneumonia shot — or two. The timing of pneumonia vaccines is tricky, so talk to your doctor.

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    Very cold — or very hot — weather

    Both winter's cold and summer's heat can trigger flare-ups. Temperatures below freezing and above 90 degrees F are particularly dangerous extremes when flare-ups become more common. During a cold spell, shortness of breath and coughing typically get worse. During a hot spell, high levels of ozone cause coughing and wheezing. How to manage: In cold weather, cover your nose and mouth with a scarf when you go outdoors to warm up the air you inhale. In hot weather, stay indoors and keep your house cool. Closing curtains or blinds can help. No matter the weather, make sure to drink water regularly to avoid becoming dehydrated.

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    Stress

    According to the Cleveland Clinic, stress makes it harder to breathe, and shortness of breath leads to even faster, more shallow breathing that gives rise to anxiety and feelings of panic. How to manage: Dealing with stress effectively can break the anxiety-breathlessness cycle. Some people find that carving out as little as 10 minutes each day to listen to music, read a book or do something else they enjoy damps down anxiety. Others rely on meditation, yoga or tai chi. Relaxation exercises that combine deep breathing with muscle relaxation exercises are often helpful.

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    Inactive

    People with COPD often feel too tired to carry out even undemanding everyday activities, especially in cold weather. Unfortunately, inactivity makes breathing even more difficult and increases the disabling effects of the disease. Over time, deteriorating aerobic fitness and reduced strength lead to further shortness of breath and fatigue. How to manage: Ask your doctor or therapist to recommend a pulmonary rehabilitation program that includes aerobic exercise, strength training and flexibility routines, suggests Elizabeth Klings, M.D., a researcher at Boston University. Although exercise won't reverse lung disease, it can improve breathing, endurance and strength.

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    Indoor air pollution

    The lungs of people with COPD are particularly sensitive to irritating substances like cleaning products, strong scents and smoke. That's a problem, because indoor air carries two to five times more pollutants than the air outdoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Much of it comes from cleaning supplies and personal care items. How to manage:  Avoid the use of aerosol cleaning products, which disperse tiny chemical droplets that irritate the lungs. Also, buy cleaning products that don't contain bleach or ammonia. Opt for roll-on or solid deodorants and gel hair products. Use flameless candles to provide atmosphere without smoke.

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    Outdoor air pollution

    Air pollution makes it harder to breathe if you have COPD. Dust, industrial chemicals, soot, ozone and smog are all powerful irritants that trigger wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath, according to the American Lung Association. How to manage: Use your computer or cell phone to keep track of the Air Quality Index (airnow.gov). Avoid outdoor exercise during air pollution alerts. If you're driving, close car windows and set the ventilation system to 'recirculate' to limit exposure to pollutants. Get regular tune-ups for your car to reduce tailpipe emissions, which are particularly harmful.

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    Smoking

    Smoking cigarettes, pipes or cigars is the primary cause of COPD and a trigger for flare-ups. Although lung function — how much air you can breathe in and out —  normally declines with age, the rate at which it declines accelerates for smokers. People who continue to smoke eventually reach a point where they can't breathe well enough to take care of their basic daily needs, notes Frank Sciurba, M.D., a pulmonologist at the University of Pittsburgh. How to manage: Although lung damage from smoking can't be reversed, quitting can slow down the progression of the disease and decrease the severity of symptoms, explains Sciurba. Quitting also reduces the number of future flare-ups.

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