Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a serious lung disease that, over time, makes it hard to breathe. COPD is used to describe a variety of lung diseases, including, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. An estimated 24 million people have COPD today, but about half do not realize it. <!–split–>
Many people mistake shortness of breath as a normal part of aging or a result of being out of shape, but that is not necessarily the case. COPD develops slowly, so symptoms may not be obvious until damage has occurred. Common symptoms include an ongoing cough, a cough that produces a lot of mucus, shortness of breath (especially during physical activity), wheezing and chest tightness.
Those most at risk are smokers, former smokers over the age of 40 and people who have had long-term exposure to other lung irritants like secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes and dust. Additionally, alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, a rare genetic condition known as AAT deficiency, can increase the risk of developing COPD.
If you are experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms, you need to get tested by your doctor. Spirometry is a simple breathing test that your doctor can use to tell if you have COPD and, if so, how severe it is. Early screening can also identify COPD before major loss of lung function occurs.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD. However, if you do indeed have COPD, you need to know that there are things you can do to help manage symptoms and protect your lungs from further damage, including:
- Quit smoking: If you smoke, the best thing you can do to prevent more damage to your lungs is to quit. To get help, the National Cancer Institute offers a number of smoking cessation resources at gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW. You can also ask your doctor about prescription anti-smoking drugs that can help reduce nicotine cravings.
- Avoid air pollutants: Stay away from things that could irritate your lungs like dust, allergens and strong fumes. Also, to help improve your air quality at home, you can remove dust-collecting clutter, keep carpets clean, run an exhaust fan when using smelly cleaning products, bug sprays or paint, ban smoking indoors and keep windows closed when outdoor air pollution is high (see govfor daily air-quality reports).
- Guard against flu: The flu can cause serious problems for people who have COPD, so you should get a flu shot every fall and wash and sanitize your hands frequently to avoid getting sick. You can also ask your doctor about getting the pneumococcal immunizations for protection against pneumonia.
- Take prescribed medications: Bronchodilators (taken with an inhaler) are commonly used for COPD. They help relax the airway muscles to make breathing easier. Depending on how severe your condition, you may need a short-acting version to use only when symptoms occur or a long-acting prescription for daily use. Inhaled steroids may also help decrease inflammation, reduce mucus and prevent flare-ups.
For more information, visit the COPD Foundation at copdfoundation.org or call the COPD information line at 866-316-2673.
Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of “The Savvy Living” book.