Sixteen million Americans have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease , or COPD, yet 50% are unaware they are living with the third-leading cause of death in the United States. This startling statistic highlights the importance of further understanding what exactly COPD is. While there’s no cure for COPD, it is preventable and treatable.
What is COPD?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is the overarching term for progressive lung diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis or refractory asthma. Over time, the lungs thicken and become inflamed, destroying tissue for oxygen exchange. Airflow to the lungs is blocked, which causes breathlessness, wheezing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath and frequent and chronic coughing.
The only test available to diagnose COPD is a breathing test called a spirometry test. This measures the amount of air intake to the lungs and how fast you can blow air out. It can also identify poor airflow to the lungs, which is an indicator of COPD. This test is important to determine the severity / advancement of the disease and treatment plans to take in the future and as the disease progresses.
COPD is a chronic disease that can inhibit a patient’s ability to perform day-to-day activities. Walking up the stairs and minimal physical activity is greatly affected in COPD patients. Those with extreme cases carry portable oxygen tanks, which can further inhibit the overall quality of life for someone who is active. The disease can also increase memory loss, visits to emergency rooms, risk for other chronic diseases, depression and poor health status.
About 85-90% of COPD patients were former heavy smokers or used tobacco products. Individuals with a genetic predisposition to the disease and those who have increased exposure to air pollutants at home or work are at risk for developing COPD, too. These pollutants include secondhand smoke, heating fuels, dusts, gases and fumes.
Adults 40 and older are at an increased risk especially if any of the factors listed above come into play. COPD is 13 times more likely in female smokers and 12 times more likely in male smokers than non-smokers. Women are usually diagnosed once the disease has progressed and treatment options become limited, which results in a higher mortality rate.
How to deal with a COPD diagnosis
The best way to reduce symptoms of COPD is to stop all use of tobacco products and reduce any air pollutants that are in your control.
Some other options are available such as medications, pulmonary rehabilitation, physical activity and oxygen treatment if blood oxygen levels are low. Inhalers can assist in reducing breathless symptoms. Pulmonary rehabilitation teaches COPD patients strategies on how to manage the disease through better breathing techniques, conserving energy and ways to incorporate nutrition and exercise.
Lung infections should also be avoided as these can cause serious complications in those with COPD. Be sure to stay up-to-date on flu and pneumococcal vaccines if you’ve been diagnosed with COPD.
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