I am a single mother, aged 45, just diagnosed with emphysema from smoking. I find it impossible to go outside in cold weather since my chest feels so tight. I get breathless doing everyday jobs such as vacuuming. I used to be very active. I have no car and little money. Could you give me some advice?
To keep the worst effects of your emphysema at bay and have a reasonable quality of life, you’ll need to take a life-long approach to managing your disease. If you can hold on to a positive outlook and be self-disciplined about your lifestyle, you will feel and stay much healthier.
Emphysema gradually destroys the tiny vessels in the lungs that filter oxygen into the bloodstream, making it ever harder to get enough oxygen to allow the body to work efficiently. Not only is breathing hard work, but so is everything else because muscles that are starved of oxygen are like a car running on empty: they simply can’t function. So you end up feeling exhausted after the smallest bit of effort.
One of the most frightening aspects of a lung disease such as emphysema is the extreme breathlessness that can make you think you are suffocating – literally gasping for breath. As you have no doubt begun to realise, your lungs will find certain environments much harder going than others, so try to avoid extremes of temperature or humidity and keep away from dusty, smoky or polluted places.
Your GP may be able to help in two specific ways. First, ask if you could be referred to a physiotherapist who can advise you on good breathing techniques and exercises. Even if you are breathing relatively normally now, this disease tends to change the way you breathe, from deep and relaxed to shallow and tight breathing, which is not helpful. Early advice can help you get good breath control, which in turn can reduce stress and anxiety.
Second, ask if your GP will put you on an “exercise referral” scheme. This will give you access to a qualified instructor and gym at very low cost. It is essential that you now start to develop a life-long exercise habit, in order to preserve as much fitness and energy as you can. Don’t be fooled: activity may make you more tired at first, but inactivity will rapidly weaken your body and leave you feeling much worse.
Lung damage often contributes to heart conditions further down the line, so your number one exercise priority should be cardiovascular ( aerobic) activity, such as cycling, a rowing machine in the gym or brisk walking (treadmill or outdoors). At first you may only manage a couple of minutes, but this should improve over time, with practice and expert guidance from your instructor.
Swimming can also be great, but it will depend on whether your lungs can tolerate the humidity and/or chemicals (eg chlorine) in the pool.
Strength work, especially for your back, chest and arm muscles, will help, as will flexibility exercises. You will also cope much better if you are not overweight and eating nutritious food.