Maybe they’re a loved one. Maybe they’re a friend. Or, maybe they’re a neighbor. Whoever they may be, the chances are high that you already know someone with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). An estimated 405,000 people in Alabama have been diagnosed with this debilitating lung disease. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), millions more Americans could have it and not know. This November for National COPD Awareness Month, we’re raising awareness about COPD and showing support for those who have this disease.
What is COPD?
Also known as chronic bronchitis or emphysema, COPD is a serious lung disease that over time makes it hard to breathe. It is a leading cause of death in the United States and is also a leading cause of disability. Symptoms include frequent coughing or wheezing, excess phlegm, shortness of breath and trouble taking a deep breath. COPD develops slowly, which can delay its diagnosis. COPD is usually diagnosed in middle-aged or older adults. Sometimes, people will mistake their breathing issues as a part of aging or a consequence of being out of shape. In actuality, their lungs are damaged and they have chronic bronchitis, emphysema or both.
In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the lungs’ airways is constantly irritated and inflamed, and this causes the lining to swell. An excess of thick mucus forms in the airways and makes it difficult to breathe. When a person has emphysema, the walls between their lungs’ air sacs are damaged and cannot work as they should to bring in oxygen for the body and remove carbon dioxide waste. Most people with COPD have both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
COPD is usually the result of damage to the lungs from smoking cigarettes or by breathing in second-hand smoke or other lung irritants—such as air pollution, chemical fumes or dusts. According to NIH, the main risk factor for COPD is smoking. Up to 75 percent of people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. People who have a family history of COPD are also more likely to develop the disease if they smoke. There is no cure for COPD; however, early diagnosis and treatment can greatly improve their quality of life.
What can be done?
Once a person is diagnosed with COPD, there are several approaches to help manage their symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. These could include lifestyle changes, medications, rehabilitation and surgery. Lifestyle changes include smoking cessation, avoiding irritants to the lungs, using a portable oxygen tank and regular vaccination to avoid lung infections such as the flu or pneumococcal pneumonia.
Medications like bronchodilators and steroids can help make breathing easier for people with COPD. Pulmonary rehabilitation is a personalized treatment program that teaches people with COPD how to manage their symptoms to improve their quality of life. It may include learning to breathe better, conserve energy and advice on food and exercise. A doctor may recommend surgery for some people with COPD who have severe symptoms, such as removing damaged lung tissue and lung transplant.
Are you at risk?
One of the best ways to decrease the chances of developing COPD is not smoking or quitting if you do. Avoidance of long-term exposure to other lung irritants can also cut your risk. If you believe you are at risk, you should consult your healthcare provider. They can advise you about what you can do to avoid developing it. If you are experiencing symptoms, such as chronic coughing, your healthcare provider can examine and test you for COPD. Recognizing this condition earlier can get you treatment and greatly improve the quality of your life.
For more information about COPD, visit the Learn More Breathe Better program at nhlbi.nih.gov/breathebetter.