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T.L.C. for Your Lungs

Lungs Need T.L.C., Too!
Breathing in and breathing out - this is something we do about 23,000 times a day. Our lungs work continuously. It's no wonder that we begin to lose small amounts of lung function beginning in our middle years - our insides age just like the rest of us! We adjust to normal lung loss without being aware of it. Sometimes, though, our health habits, environment or even our genes can wreak havoc with our breathing.

Our lungs are made up of hundreds of thousands of airways. Airways are like highways that guide the air we breathe to delicate air sacs. Inflammation or mucus caused by irritants like cigarette smoking or infection can clog up airways, like morning stalls on the H-1 freeway. Long term exposure to irritants or frequent or severe lung infections can cause chronic diseases like emphysema, chronic bronchitis and bronchiectasis.

At the tip of the airways are the air sacs. They are gossamer thin, balloon-like structures. We have about 300 million air sacs through which oxygen enters the blood stream and a waste gas - carbon dioxide - escapes the blood. With each breath in, we inject life-giving oxygen; each breath out evacuates carbon dioxide gas.

Diseases like asthma and bronchiectasis, affect the airways; pulmonary fibrosis or emphysema affects the air sacs. Sometimes hereditary diseases affect lung function, like most asthma or cystic fibrosis. When our lungs don't function normally, we may experience a variety of symptoms including shortness of breath, a productive cough, wheezing, frequent dry cough and even poor sleep.

Shortness of breath can be caused by many reasons such as being out of shape or overweight, not taking your medicines, having too much mucus in your lungs or having underlying lung disease. Sometimes people who have a low blood oxygen level may experience shortness of breath. Low blood oxygen, over time, can cause heart strain, poor memory and even poor sleep, but it is treatable with supplemental oxygen. If your doctor has recommended supplemental oxygen, it can enhance your heart function and ability to enjoy life.

What can we do to preserve our lung function? Whether you are young or old, have a lung condition or not, we can all learn practices for good lung health.

Get a Shot
The mainstay of pneumonia prevention in seniors is a vaccine against influenza and pneumococcal infections.

Cases of influenza have already been reported in our islands. Asking your doctor about a flu shot should be one of your priorities during your next visit. Influenza or flu, is an infection caused by a virus and is not responsive to antibiotics. Anti-viral agents like Amantadine are effective against influenza A, but is most effective if given within hours of experiencing flu symptoms.

The flu shot will help your body produce protection, called antibodies, against the current winter season influenza virus. The vaccine takes two weeks to build peak protection in your blood, and may last for as long as 12 weeks. Vaccination should ideally be done in November or as soon as your doctor recommends it.

The pneumonia (pneumococcal) vaccine is currently recommended once in a lifetime for anyone 65 years of age or older, especially if they have any chronic medical conditions. There is some evidence that taking the vaccine early, rather than later in the course of chronic illness produces best protection.

Stop Smoking
For adults 65 years and older, cigarette smoking is a leading risk factor for accelerated physical decline and even premature death. Smoking also complicates chronic conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, ulcers, diabetes and osteoporosis.

It's never too late to quit smoking. Smokers who quit experience cardiovascular benefits, increases in stamina and memory over time, relief of symptoms and alter the progression of chronic disease. Important factors in quitting smoking is a commitment to quit, belief that you can quit, exercise and social support.

The American Cancer Society sponsors a national Great American Smoke Out day on November 20th. On this day, they ask smokers to quit for a day. Your doctor will be more than happy to guide you in setting a quit date and provide information on any nicotine replacement (nicorette gum, nicotine patches) or pills, and techniques that can help in reducing withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and irritability.

Taking Care of Business
Good medical care involves your participation. By following the suggestions listed, you will be helping your doctor to take good care of you.

     • Take medications your doctor has prescribed. If you aren't sure how they help you, ask your doctor, pharmacist or health professional for information so you will be better prepared to help yourself. If a medicine disagrees with you, be sure to let your doctor know. He can help find another option if possible.
     • Get to know yourself. Report any changes. On a normal day, how much mucus do you cough up? What color and how thick is it? How short of breath, if at all, do you get when doing your daily activities? Are there any unusual changes as to how your body looks or feels? Your doctor depends on you to let him know when there is anything new or different going on. By reporting changes to your baseline, you will reap the benefits of treating health problems before they get out of hand.
     • Educate yourself about any chronic conditions you have. Learn about your disease. What is it? What therapies or behavioral changes can reduce or control its symptoms? How can you best take the medicine to receive maximum benefit? When should you call the doctor?
     • Start with your doctor for education and support. The American Lung Association and other health agencies are good sources of educational material. Health care centers offer education and training classes either in groups or individually. A pulmonary rehabilitation program educates and trains people to manage their lung disease and increases their ability to do daily activities. Asthma classes help people take control and reduces the risk of suddenly occurring attacks. Ask your doctor, hospital or community resource centers for more information.

Lung related resources are available on the internet. Local and national sources include the National Asthma Education Program  and the American Association for Respiratory Care.

Lung health doesn't just mean taking care of your lungs. Your body is a fabulous creation with interconnections and functions that rely on each other. If you actively participate in maintaining your health by getting enough rest, eating nutritious foods, avoiding irritants like cigarette smoking, exercising regularly, and following your doctor's advice, you will help your lungs function at its best.