More than 16.4 million Americans live with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of progressive lung diseases that leave their victims feeling as though they are slowly and uncomfortably being deprived of vital oxygen. COPD is the third leading cause of death by disease among Americans, and in many cases, it is preventable. If you are a smoker, or you know that your lifestyle has made you susceptible to this frightening disease, make today the day that you better understand the condition, and then take the first steps to wellness by getting help from your doctor.
What Is COPD?
The most common lung diseases that comprise chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are chronic bronchitis and chronic emphysema.
- Emphysema affects the air sacs in the lungs and the walls between them, making them less elastic over time
- Chronic bronchitis causes the lining of the airways to be regularly inflamed and irritated, which causes the lining to swell and produce a slimy mucus
Most COPD patients have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, the severity of which varies for each. Generally, with COPD, due to the inflammation and tissue damage, the vital tissues that exchange oxygen become damaged and unable to work correctly. As a result, there is a decrease in the flow of air in and out of the lungs. With less oxygen passing into the body’s tissues, it becomes equally challenging for the body to rid itself of carbon dioxide.
Signs and Symptoms of COPD
As COPD worsens, patients describe feeling general shortness of breath, which makes it challenging to be active. Other symptoms include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Mucus production
- Chest tightness
Causes of COPD
COPD is often caused by long-term exposure to particulate matter or irritating gasses that damage the lungs. In most cases, the cause of COPD is long-term cigarette smoking. Of the 25 percent of COPD sufferers who never smoked, their conditions are most often caused by long-term exposure to such irritants as chemical fumes, dust, and air pollution. Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency, a rare genetic condition, can also cause COPD.
In addition to lifestyle factors and chemical exposure, risk factors that can increase your chance of developing COPD include:
- Age – Most COPD diagnoses occur in individuals who are at least 40 years old
- Genetics – Smokers with a family history of COPD are more likely also to develop the disease in their lifetime
Patients with COPD are at an increased risk of other health complications and disorders, particularly heart disease and lung cancer. Some individuals with COPD may also develop frequent respiratory infections, such as colds and the flu. In severe cases, COPD can cause weight loss, lower muscle weakness, and lower body joint swelling.
If you smoke, it is never too late to quit and begin minimizing your risk of developing COPD. Quitting at any age will enhance your health, no matter how long you have smoked. Consider these facts:
- Two weeks to three months after quitting smoking, your risk of heart attack drops
- One to nine months after quitting, you’ll experience less shortness of breath and cough less
- One year after quitting, your risk of heart disease will reduce by half
- Five years after quitting, your risk of stroke decreases
- Ten years after quitting, your risk of lung cancer drops to equal that of someone who’s never smoked
- Fifteen years after quitting, you risk of heart disease drops to equal that of someone who has never smoked
If you are ready to quit smoking, talk to your doctor, or use the resources available from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
When to Get Help
If you are or have been a smoker or your work or lifestyle has left you exposed to chemical pollutants, and you believe you are experiencing signs of COPD, talk to your doctor. They can provide a diagnosis using imaging, blood, and lung function tests. Once the extent of your condition is confirmed, your doctor will work with you to establish a treatment plan and help maximize your capable activity levels and your lifestyle.