If you have a condition that impacts your lungs – like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis, pulmonary fibrosis or even allergies – breathing freely can be a daily struggle. While perfect functioning may not always be possible, there are some actions you can take to reduce your difficulties and flare-ups. Many of them are easier than you may think.

Manage Your Schedule for Less Stress

You’re less likely to overtax your lungs when you haven’t overbooked your schedule with strenuous activities. Plan wisely, and you’ll be able to breathe easier.


It may seem counterintuitive, but mild to moderate exercise, per your doctor’s orders, can help strengthen your lungs and increase your lung capacity.

Eat Smaller Meals More Regularly

Large meals can cause your stomach to bloat and crowd your lungs. If you’re struggling with decreased lung capacity, that crowding can have an impact on your breathing.

Try Breathing Exercises

Your doctor may prescribe breathing exercises tailored to your specific condition. However, one of the most popular is called “pursed lips breathing.” It can be helpful for anyone who experiences shortness of air. It involves breathing in through your nose slowly for two counts. Then nearly closing the lips while you breathe out through the mouth slowly, as if blowing out a candle, for a count of four. Concentrate on pushing your lower abdomen out when inhaling, which is using your diaphragm breathing muscle. These simple exercises, done for a few minutes daily, can condition your lungs to breathe deep and utilize more of their capacity.

Fight the Buildup of Mucous

Many people with breathing disorders struggle with overactive mucous membranes in their lungs or overactive reactions to environmental factors like pollen. Staying hydrated by drinking water can help keep our mucous thin, as can using your prescribed breathing medications. People with more severe build-up may be eligible for airway clearance devices such as a chest vest. When worn, this device can help the lungs expel their mucous. Talk with your provider to see if you qualify for an airway clearance device.

Remove Known Lung Irritants

This includes the most notorious irritant of all – cigarette smoke. If you are a smoker, start a smoking cessation plan immediately, with the help of your physician. If any of your family members smoke, ask them not to smoke inside the same enclosed space with you, as second-hand smoke is at least as damaging as smoking a cigarette yourself. You may also want to eliminate highly scented perfumes, air fresheners or cleaning products that kick up fumes into your home environment. If you’re exercising or walking, try to avoid areas with industrial smoke or pollutants and take heed of the asthma or pollution alerts when they are signaled by your local government.

Call Your Provider if You are Sick

If you notice you have difficulty breathing, wheezing or changes in your mucous, this is your body’s way of telling you it’s getting sick. Listen to your body. You can prevent a trip to your primary care office, urgent care or the hospital by communicating early with your provider when symptoms start.

Consider Pulmonary Rehab

Pulmonary rehab is a multidisciplinary program that combines individualized exercise, education and medical care to minimize symptoms and complications for patients with conditions such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, lung cancer, thoracic surgery, post-polio syndrome and other disorders that compromise respiratory function. The program is designed to help patients improve their strength, endurance and breathing efficiency. UofL Health offers both inpatient and outpatient programs to help patients return to an active lifestyle.

Living with breathing difficulties can be challenging. Fortunately, there are things you can do to improve your quality of life. Visit UofLHealth.org/services/pulmonary-rehab for more information about pulmonary rehab or to find a provider to help.

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Peggy Cox, RN, RRT

Peggy Cox, RN, RRT, has been actively employed in health care for more than 40 years as a respiratory therapist. She received her bachelor of science in nursing in 2006. She has worked at UofL Health – Frazier Rehabilitation Institute since 1992, becoming the manager of the pulmonary rehab department in 2004. She has actively educated health care professionals, patients and caregivers throughout her career, learning how to manage and care for patients with breathing impairments.

All posts by Peggy Cox, RN, RRT
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