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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a generic name for three long-term lung diseases that affect the ability to breathe. The two most common forms of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which can occur either as a single disease or together. Chronic asthmatic bronchitis is the third condition under the COPD umbrella. COPD may produce mild symptoms at first, which can become progressively worse. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the American Lung Association (ALA). In 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, it claimed 134,676 lives. Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. And although men have historically been diagnosed with emphysema at a greater rate than women, the rate of diagnosis for women surpassed that of men in 2011 (2.6 million for men vs. 2.1 million for women).
COPD is caused primarily by exposure to substances that obstruct and irritate the lungs. These irritants damage the cilia – the hair-like structures that help move mucus out of the lungs – and cause airways to become narrow or blocked. Over time, the lungs may also lose their elasticity, making it more difficult to take in enough air or exhale completely when you breathe.
The most common cause of COPD is smoking. According to the COPD Foundation, about 90% of COPD sufferers are current or past smokers. Female smokers are nearly 13 times as likely to die from COPD as women who have never smoked, the American Lung Association says. Male smokers are nearly 12 times as likely to die from COPD as men who have never smoked. Other causes of COPD include exposure to air pollution, secondhand smoke and chemical or fuel fumes.
The risk factors for COPD include:
If you have symptoms of COPD – particularly if you also smoke – your doctor will likely perform one or more of these tests:
People with COPD may feel only mild symptoms at first or none at all, so the disease may be ignored or misdiagnosed. Over time, as lung damage worsens, the symptoms become more severe and begin to interfere with daily life. Typically, patients are diagnosed in their 60s.
The most common symptoms of COPD are:
COPD patients may also experience periods of exacerbation (“flare-ups”), when symptoms suddenly become worse. These exacerbations may increase in frequency over time.
There is no cure for COPD, and lung damage cannot be reversed once it occurs. The disease can be fatal, particularly if complications such as heart disease occur. However, treatment and lifestyle changes can help you control your symptoms, prevent exacerbations and live longer.
Here are some important tips for living with COPD:
Early detection is important; the earlier you’re diagnosed, the sooner you can begin treatment and help improve your quality of life. The COPD Foundation recommends spirometry screening for anyone who has a family history of COPD, or who:
The best way to prevent COPD is to stop smoking – or never to take up smoking in the first place. When you quit, your lungs gradually regain their function, although existing lung damage can’t be reversed.
If you have been diagnosed as having low levels of the protein alpha-1 antitrypsin, getting regular shots of the protein may lower your risk of severe COPD.
Exercising regularly is important as well; a study from the World Health Organization found that people who were physically active five or more times per week had a 29 percent reduced risk for COPD. In addition, a new study suggests that obesity – especially excess belly fat – may be a risk factor for COPD. Women with waist sizes of 43 inches or more, as well as men with waist sizes of 46 inches or more, were 72 percent more likely to develop the disease as those who had smaller midsections.
There are a number of things you can do to avoid an exacerbation (flare-up). Getting an annual flu shot is important; you may also need booster shots for pneumonia and pertussis (whooping cough). Take steps to stay healthy, particularly during cold and flu season: Wash your hands frequently; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; get plenty of rest and drink water frequently to thin the mucus in your lungs.
Although there is no cure for COPD, a variety of medications are available to help control symptoms and help you feel more comfortable. Some COPD medications are taken daily, while others are taken on an as-needed basis.
The following are some of the medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for control of COPD symptoms:
Although alternative medicine cannot cure COPD, many patients use it as a supplement to their traditional medications. Some complementary therapies include:
See a doctor if you:
If you have already been diagnosed with COPD, contact your doctor if:
Call your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room if:
Being diagnosed with a serious condition like COPD is frightening, and it can be difficult to know what to ask during your doctor’s appointment.
Here is a list of questions that you might want to ask when discussing your treatment plan:
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