“I'm starting to wonder if I might have something a little more serious than just being out of shape. I've been experiencing shortness of breath for the last five years, and it's progressively getting worse. Recently I have even gotten winded just walking to the end of my short front yard to get the morning paper. One of my friends suggested I should get checked out for COPD. Can you tell me more about this and the early warning signs?” - Breathless Robert
COPD is a serious lung disease that will make it harder and harder to breathe as it progresses. It's a progressive disease, but you can do things to slow down the progression. In 2013, the American Lung Association found that about 12 million people have been diagnosed with COPD – but it's estimated that another 13 million have it, but don't know it.
Many people think that getting short of breath is a normal part of aging, but this is not the case. COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive
Pulmonary Disease and is an umbrella term used for several chronic lung diseases including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It develops at a very slow pace, so detection often does not occur until the later stages.
Symptoms of COPD can include a cough that produces a lot of mucus, a cough that goes on for longer than six months, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness.
Individuals at the highest risk of COPD are smokers over the age of 40, as well as people over the age of 40 who used to smoke when they were younger. If you've had exposure to a lot of pollution, chemicals fumes and secondhand smoke, you are also at a much higher risk for COPD. In rare cases, it can be caused genetically by a condition known as alpha-1-antitrypsin, or AAT deficiency.
If you believe that you are experiencing the symptoms mentioned above, we recommend you talk to your doctor about getting tested for COPD. Spirometry tests, a simple breathing test, are used to help detect COPD, as well as x-rays and a blood test. Early testing is helpful in diagnosing COPD before significant damage to the lungs occurs which can contribute to slowing and managing the progression of the disease.
There is no cure for COPD, but you can work to make sure the disease does not progress into the severe stages. These are some things you can do right now to prevent lung function loss:
Stop smoking: Quitting is the very first and most important thing you can do to prevent COPD, or keep it from getting worse. You can call the National Cancer Institute for smoking cessation resources or go to smokefree.gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for help with quitting. Your doctor is also an excellent resource on how to smoking successfully.
Avoid air pollutants: Avoid things that are known to irritate lungs such as dust, allergens, and chemical fumes. Do what you can to improve the air quality in your home. Get rid of carpets and upholstery that collects dust and ban smoking in your home. Avoid going out when air pollution outdoors is high.
Avoid flu and pneumonia: Get a flu vaccine every fall and wash your hands frequently to avoid getting sick. Ask your doctor about getting the pneumococcal immunizations for protection against pneumonia, if he or she hasn't already ordered you to get one.
Take your meds: Bronchodilators in the form of inhalers are commonly used for COPD. They help relax the airways to make it easier to breathe. You may also need a rescue inhaler or a control inhaler for daily use. Inhaled steroids are often used short-term to reduce inflammation and help prevent flare-ups.
We hope that this helps provide you some information regarding COPD. Remember, always consult your doctor if you're worried about your health. This letter was only meant to provide information and not to diagnose or provide medical advice.