Someone dies from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) every four minutes in the United States. It is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., killing more than 120,000 Americans each year. The number of people with COPD is rising. With more than 12 million people are already diagnosed with the disease, another 12 million may already have COPD without knowing it.
What is COPD?
COPD is a serious disease caused by damage to the lungs. Unfortunately, the damage is permanent. While there is no cure for COPD, the earlier you are diagnosed, the easier it will be to manage the disease as well as help you feel better.
People with COPD have trouble breathing and suffer from chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Many suffer from both.
Chronic bronchitis is when airways and bronchial tubes become narrow due to inflammation and mucus, which makes it difficult to breathe.
Emphysema is the result of damaged air sacs in the lungs. Air sacs in healthy lungs work like balloons, growing bigger and smaller to move air through the lungs. Damaged air sacs lose their elasticity and move less air in and out of the lungs, which causes shortness of breath.
• Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Tobacco smoke irritates airways and damages fibers in the lungs.
• Secondhand smoke, chemical fumes, dust, and air pollution over a long period of time can also contribute to COPD.
• People who suffered from serious lung infections as children may be more at risk for the disease.
• Those who have been diagnosed with the disease in their 30s and 40s may have a rare genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.
• A chronic (long-lasting) cough
• Coughing up mucus regularly
• Shortness of breath that escalates with exercise.
People who show symptoms of COPD are usually middle-aged or older as symptoms of the disease take many years to surface. COPD symptoms worsen with time and people may feel short of breath during simple activities, such as getting dressed, cooking dinner or even normal walking. As breathing starts to take more energy, some may experience weakness.
Severe symptoms can flare up at times to the point where they could be life threatening. The longer someone has COPD, the harsher the flare ups will be. It is important to talk to your physician if you have symptoms of COPD so that you can be prepared for future flare ups.
If you would like to find out your risk for being diagnosed with COPD, a screening test is available at www.drive4copd.com. A PDF version can also be downloaded here.
Reaching a Diagnosis
To diagnose COPD, a physician will:
• Complete a physical exam and listen to your lungs
• Ask you questions about your health – whether you smoke or have been exposed to other things that can irritate your lungs.
• Conduct spirometry and other pulmonary function tests. Spirometry is a common and simple breathing test that measures how much and how quickly you inhale and exhale air through your lungs.
• Order chest X-rays and other tests to rule out different causes for your symptoms.
When combating COPD, the most important thing you can do is quit smoking. This is difficult, but it is never too late to quit. There are many resources to help you kick a smoking habit, including:
• Your physician
• 1-800-QUITNOW (1-800-784-8669)
Your physician can also prescribe treatments that may help you feel better, such as:
• Medicines, including inhalers that may help you breathe easier
• Oxygen, when necessary
You can take additional steps in your daily routine to remain as healthy as possible if you have COPD.
• Avoid things that can irritate your lungs, such as smoke, pollution, and air that is cold and dry.
• Use an air conditioner or air filter in your home.
• Take rest breaks during the day.
• Exercise regularly.
• Eat well and drink lots of water. If you are losing weight unexpectedly, ask your physician about easier ways to get the calories you need.
Many people with COPD live long and productive lives by taking responsibility for their own health and welfare. If you think you might have COPD, take the “drive4COPD” screening test and share the results with your physician. Good communication with your physician and following good health practices will ensure you live the best and healthiest life possible.