Oct 13, 2020
November is COPD Awareness Month. The American Lung Association estimates that 16.4 million people suffer from COPD, and several more million likely have the disease but do not know it.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States. The disease can develop over a period of years, and early symptoms can be undiscernible. Eventually, symptoms develop, include wheezing, shortness of breath, a chronic cough that produces phlegm, and a slow progressive shortness of breath. Often these symptoms are mistakenly blamed on aging or a consequence of being out of shape.
Bronchitis is inflammation of large and medium-sized airways in the lungs. It can cause a cough that often brings up mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest discomfort and a low fever. It becomes chronic when a cough lasts for three months or more per year. Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition that keeps coming back or never completely goes away.
Last year nearly 9 million people in the United States had a diagnosis of chronic bronchitis. According to the American Lung Association, women are more than twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis.
In emphysema it is the tiny air sacs at the end of the airways in the lungs that are damaged. When these sacs are damaged they become larger and are not able to move as much oxygen into the blood. After these air sacs are destroyed, they cannot be replaced.
3.8 million Americans have emphysema, which is most common among adults age 65 and older.
The most significant predictor of getting COPD is a history of smoking. Other factors include exposure to air pollutants in the home and workplace (second-hand smoke, dust, chemicals, etc.), genetic factors, and respiratory infections.
How is COPD Diagnosed?
A simple, non-invasive test called Spirometry is used to diagnose lung diseases or disorders, including COPD. In this test, a machine measures how much air you can breathe in, and then how much and how forcefully you can exhale that air back out. Simply described, the machine measures how well your lungs are working.
What can be done to alleviate symptoms?
Once you have COPD, it is not reversible – but you can change habits to better manage the disease. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), treatment options that your physician may consider include:
- Quit smoking. For people who smoke, the most important part of treatment is smoking cessation.
- Avoid tobacco smoke and other irritating air pollutants at home and at work.
- Ask your doctor about pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a personalized treatment program that teaches COPD management strategies to improve quality of life. Programs may include plans that teach people how to breathe better and conserve their energy, as well as provide advice on food and exercise.
- Symptoms such as coughing or wheezing can be treated with medication.
- Avoid lung infections. Lung infections can cause serious problems in people with COPD. Certain vaccines, such as flu and pneumococcal vaccines, are especially important for people with COPD. Maintaining social distancing during the Covid pandemic is critical for people with COPD.
- Some people use a portable oxygen tank if their blood oxygen levels are low.
Healthier choices are challenging to sustain long enough to make them a habit, but if you set goals, and keep working toward them, you can live a healthier and more comfortable life with COPD.