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Breathing techniques

If you have COPD, you need to get the most out of each breath. The breathing techniques on this page will help you do that.

To learn more about breathing techniques, you can join a pulmonary rehabilitation program. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs are specially designed for people with COPD. They teach breathing and exercise techniques, and they're a fun way to stay in shape. Learn more about pulmonary rehabilitation.

What to do if you're short of breath

Being short of breath can feel scary. It helps if you know what to do.

  • Stop and rest in a comfortable position
  • Lower your head and shoulders
  • Breathe in through your nose, and blow out through your mouth
  • Breathe in and blow out as fast as is necessary
  • Begin to blow out more slowly and for a longer time. Don't force it. Use pursed lip breathing if you find it helpful
  • Slow your breathing down
  • Begin breathing through your nose
  • Begin doing diaphragmatic breathing
  • Stay in this position for 5 minutes longer
man sitting on chair
man sitting on chair leaning head on table
man forward on rail
man leaning back against wall
Comfortable positions if you're short of breath

1. Sitting: Sit with your back against the back of the chair. Your head and shoulders should be rolled forward and relaxed downwards. Rest your hands and forearms on your thighs, palms turned upwards. Do not lean on your hands. Your feet should be on the floor, knees rolled slightly outwards. Follow the steps above until your breathing is normal.

2. Sitting: Lean back into the chair in a slouched position, your head rolled forward, shoulders relaxed downward. Rest your hands gently on your stomach. Keep your feet on floor, knees rolled outward. Follow the steps above ("What to do if you're short of breath") until your breathing is normal.

3. Sitting: Place a pillow on a table and sit down, arms folded and resting on the pillow. Keep your feet on the floor or a stool, and rest your head on your arms. Follow the steps above ("What to do if you're short of breath") until your breathing is normal.

This position may also be used standing, arms resting on kitchen counter or back of chair, not leaning, knees bent slightly, one foot in front of the other.

4. Standing: Lean with your back to the wall, a pole, etc. Place your feet slightly apart and at a comfortable distance from the wall, head and shoulders relaxed. Follow the steps above ("What to do if you're short of breath") until your breathing is normal.

How to control your breathing

If you know how to control your breathing, you can stay calm when you're short of breath. Pursed-lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing will both help. These breathing methods prevent or reduce the trapped air in your lungs, and allow you to breathe in more fresh air.

Pursed lip breathing
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose for 1 count
  • Purse your lips as if you were going to whistle
  • Breathe out gently through pursed lips for 2 slow counts (breathe out twice as slowly as you breathed in). Let the air escape naturally- don't force the air out of your lungs
  • Keep doing pursed lip breathing until you're no longer short of breath
Cartoon man demonstrating diaphragmatic breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing
  • Put one hand on your upper chest, and the other on your belly just above your waist
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose - you should be able to feel the hand on your belly moving out. The hand on your chest shouldn't move.
  • Breathe out slowly through your pursed lips - you should be able to feel the hand on your belly moving in as you exhale (breathe out).
How to cough up phlegm: controlled coughing

People with COPD usually have extra phlegm (mucus) in their lungs. If you have phlegm, cough it up. If the phlegm stays in your lungs, it can clog your smaller airways, making it hard to breathe. The phlegm could also become infected. It's important to get the phlegm out.

Controlled coughing helps you clear the phlegm from your lungs. Here's how to do it:

  • Sit down and make yourself comfortable.
  • Lean your head forward slightly.
  • Place both feet firmly on the ground.
  • Breathe in deeply using diaphragmatic breathing (push your belly out while you breathe in).
  • Try to hold your breath for three seconds.
  • While keeping your mouth slightly open, cough out twice. You should feel your diaphragm pushed upward while you do this. The first cough should bring up the phlegm, and the second cough should move it towards the throat.
  • Spit the phlegm out into a tissue. Remember to check the colour; if the phlegm is yellow, green or brown, or has blood in it, call your doctor. Throw out the tissue right away.
  • Take a break and repeat these steps once or twice if necessary.

To learn more about how to cope when you're out of breath, read our fact sheet called Breathlessness and COPD (PDF). This 4-page fact sheet explains how to catch your breath if you feel breathless. It shows how to do pursed lip and diaphragmatic breathing, and includes pictures of body positions that make it easier to breathe.

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