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This paper aims to present a theoretical account of professional nursing challenges involved in providing care to patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The study objectives are patients' and nurses' expectations, goals and approaches to assisted personal body care.The provision of help with body care may have therapeutic qualities but there is only limited knowledge about the particularities and variations in specific groups of patients and the nurse–patient interactions required to facilitate patient functioning and well-being. For patients with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, breathlessness represents a particular challenge in the performance of body care sessions.We investigated nurse–patient interactions during assisted personal body care, using grounded theory with a symbolic interaction perspective and a constant comparative method.Twelve cases of nurse–patient interactions were analysed. Data were based on participant observation, individual interviews with patients and nurses and a standardized questionnaire on patients' breathlessness.Nurses and patients seemed to put effort into the interaction and wanted to find an appropriate way of conducting the body care session according to the patients' specific needs. Achieving therapeutic clarity in nurse–patient interactions appeared to be an important concern, mainly depending on interactions characterized by: (i) reaching a common understanding of the patient's current conditions and stage of illness trajectory, (ii) negotiating a common scope and structuring body care sessions and (iii) clarifying roles.It cannot be taken for granted that therapeutic qualities are achieved when nurses provide assistance with body care. If body care should have healing strength, the actual body care activities and the achievement of therapeutic clarity in nurses' interaction with patients' appear to be crucial.The paper proposes that patients' integrity and comfort in the body care session should be given first priority and raises attention to details that nurses should take into account when assisting severely ill patients.