Caring for someone with a lung condition

Who is a carer?

You’re a carer if you give unpaid care for a loved one or friend who could not manage without this help. You could look after someone who becomes ill, frail or disabled.

Anyone can become a carer. You may feel helping someone who is close to you is part and parcel of life. You may not think of yourself – or want to think of yourself – as a carer.

Caring for someone can start gradually and creep up on you or start overnight. But the help you provide is important. It can bring rewards – and challenges.

On this page:

Enjoying tea at home

What does a carer do?

The help you provide is unique to your circumstances. You might:

  • do everyday jobs around the house – cleaning, cooking, washing
  • give personal care – helping with washing and dressing, medication, eating
  • emotional support – companionship, lending a friendly ear
  • help with admin and finances – reading or writing letters, paying bills

It may also involve taking the person you care for to health appointments and being their advocate, encouraging them to keep active and helping them to socialise.

Learn about specific lung diseases

If you care for someone with a lung condition, make sure you’re clear about the condition they have, how it is treated and the best ways they can manage their condition.

Over time, carers often become experts in the health conditions of the people they look after, and can understand their needs very well.

Find out more:

Or search for another lung condition.


How can I help someone to manage their condition?

Make sure you are both clear about the medication they take, why they take it and how and when it’s best to take it.

Inhaled medicines work best if the inhaler is used in the right way.

There are lots of different inhalers and it can be hard to use them correctly. Ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist to demonstrate the right way to use the inhaler. You can also check the technique by watching a short video.

Talk to health care professionals about the best ways you can work together to manage the condition. This may involve agreeing a plan with health care professionals about what to do if their symptoms flare up and, sometimes, keeping rescue medications at home.

You can help by encouraging the person you care for to do things to help themselves. These include:

Watch out for weight loss

The person you look after may eat less because eating makes them breathless.

If you care for someone who is losing weight without planning to, it’s very important to tell their health care professional. They may be at risk of malnutrition, which can weaken their breathing muscles and lead to chest infections. The doctor may be able to prescribe a nutritional supplement or refer them to a dietitian. 

Read our information about nutrition how to maintain a healthy weight


How do I care for someone who gets breathless?

It can be distressing seeing someone you care for struggling to breathe. And when they feel breathless, it can be hard to do everyday things and to keep active.

He runs out of breath so easily. Even getting dressed is a major production.

Monika

It can help to think ahead. For example:

  • agree which activities are priorities and plan the day so there is time to rest before and after them
  • suggest they do things in ways that affect their breathing less like sitting down to wash or prepare meals, or using a towelling robe after a shower to dry off

The person you care for can also learn ways to feel more in control of their breathing:

  • Ask a health care professional if pulmonary rehabilitation could help the person you look after. This is a course for people with lung conditions to help them keep active and learn more about their condition, including coping with feeling short of breath. If they are referred you can go along too!
  • They could also ask to see a respiratory physiotherapist to learn:

Getting out of breath when you’re active helps

If someone avoids activities that make them breathless, their muscles will get weaker. Weaker muscles need more oxygen to work. The good news is that it’s possible to break this vicious cycle of inactivity. By becoming more active muscles get stronger, including breathing muscles. This will help people feel less out of breath as they do everyday things.

Sometimes I see people in the exercise class who are scared of getting breathless. But it’s important they keep exercising – and their carers encourage them to. Dave


How can I help someone I care for to keep active?

For many people with a long-term lung condition, exercise can help them manage their condition, boost their confidence and improve their mood. Research has shown it can reduce the number of flare-ups of conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

If you care for someone who gets breathless, ask about getting pulmonary rehabilitation. It’s important to keep exercising after the course finishes.

There are lots of other ways to be active. Choose ones the person you look after enjoys – or that you enjoy doing together. As well as everyday activities like walking or gardening, they could take up activities like an exercise class, yoga, dancing and tai chi.


How can I help someone avoid infections that make their condition worse?

If you look after someone with a lung condition like bronchiectasis, COPD and pulmonary fibrosis, you’ll want to lower their chances of getting a chest infection or their symptoms getting suddenly worse – called a flare-up or an exacerbation.

If a flare-up makes them feel a lot more breathless than usual, they may also get anxious. Being anxious will, in turn, make them feel even more breathless. Have a look at our information on how to cope with anxiety, panic attacks and breathlessness

Colds and flu spread very easily. Particularly during colder months, think about:

  • the benefits of going out and meeting other people against the risk of getting an infection
  • avoiding contact with anyone who you know has a cold or another illness. Your friends will understand
  • getting a flu jab
  • using an antibiotic gel
  • making sure you and everyone else covers their nose and mouth with a tissue when they sneeze

My first mission is to keep him clear of colds. Maxine


What can I do if the person I care for suddenly gets worse?

A lot of carers remember a time when the symptoms of the person they care for got worse suddenly and they couldn’t find a health care professional to ask what to do. It’s a good idea to ask ‘what if?’ before that happens to you, and also to watch for signs that a flare-up is on its way.

Whatever the condition of the person you care for, make sure you talk to their health care professionals about how their symptoms might get worse and what you can do if that happens. Ask about having standby medication at home. Ask what to do in an emergency too.

For some conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchiectasis and asthma, where it’s more usual for symptoms to flare up, UK guidelines recommend the person you care for has a plan, agreed with health care professionals. The plan will set out signs to look out for, what to do and when to get emergency help. Your health care professional may also suggest you keep standby drugs at home, sometimes called a rescue pack.

Guidelines for treating less common conditions, such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, also say specialist teams should give clear information about managing the condition.

Read more:

One point we always worried over was when Ron should take standby antibiotics when he had a cold. We’ve since been advised to take them at the first sign of a cold. In the early days, I felt unsure about pestering health care professionals for what seemed trivial things, but please never hesitate to ask. Ron nearly ended up with pneumonia as he didn’t take antibiotics soon enough. Maxine


How can I give emotional support as a carer?

As a carer you give both practical support and emotional support, like being a good listener.

Living with a lung condition can affect mental as well as physical health. This goes for carers too. It’s common to feel anxious or have symptoms of depression.

Remember that family, friends and other carers can also play their part. If you can get out to meet others at groups and activities the person enjoys, that will help the person you care for – and you too.

Keep as social as you can, go to groups, coffee mornings, dancing, anything to meet other people. I reckon a lot of the benefits of our exercise group come from socialising. Dave

Find out more about things you can do and the help available . Read our tips about looking after yourself while you’re caring.

Next: Tips from other carers >

Last medically reviewed: November 2018. Due for review: November 2021

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.