As we conclude our observation of Heart Health Month, let’s take a look at COPD–Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). COPD is a term used to describe a variety progressive lung diseases including chronic bronchitis, emphysema, non-reversible asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis.
Many people consider a shortness of breath and coughing as part of the aging process, but that is not necessarily so. COPD can sneak up on you, developing for years without problematic breathlessness.
This is an issue because if COPD is identified early, intervention can slow the loss of lung function. However, the symptoms are more noticeable in the later stages of the disease. Talking to your doctor as soon as you notice any of the symptoms listed below is an important first step:
- Frequent coughing
- Tightness in the chest
RISK FACTORS OF COPD
COPD affects an estimated 24 million people in the United States, and over half of those have symptoms of COPD and do not know it. Unfortunately, most cases of COPD are avoidable because they are caused by inhaling pollutants—such as smoking cigarettes, pipes, or cigars, as well as inhaling second-hand smoke. Other pollutants include fumes from the chemicals and dust found in many workplaces. However, even if a person has never smoked or been exposed to strong lung irritants, genetics can play a part in the development of COPD. Here are the top three risk factors for developing COPD:
- Smoking: COPD most often occurs in people 40 years of age and older who have a history of smoking. These may be individuals who are current or former smokers. About 90 percent of the people who have COPD are, or were, smokers.
- Environmental Factors: COPD can also occur in those who have had long-term contact with harmful pollutants in the workplace. Some of these harmful lung irritants include certain chemicals, dust, or fumes. Heavy or long-term contact with secondhand smoke or other lung irritants in the home, such as organic cooking fuel, may also cause COPD.
- Genetic Factors: Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (AATD) is the most commonly known genetic risk factor for emphysema2. Without the Alpha-1 Antitrypsin protein, white blood cells begin to harm the lungs and lung deterioration occurs.
TREATMENT OF COPD
While COPD has no cure, lifestyle changes and treatments can help patients feel better and slow the progress of the disease.
Suggested lifestyle changes include:
- Quitting smoking is the most important step you can take. Also, avoid secondhand smoke and places with toxic substances that maybe inhaled. Your primary care physician can help guide you toward programs or medications that can help you quit smoking.
- Talk with your doctor about referring you to a cardio-pulmonary program to help you enhance your stamina and strengthen your muscles. This will improve your breathing and increase your overall wellness.
- Eat healthy and nutritious foods. Some individuals with COPD find they eat and feel better when they eat several smaller meals throughout the day.
- Be sure to get all your vaccines. The flu and pneumonia can lead to serious complications for anyone, but even more so for those with COPD. Getting a vaccine will increase your chances of staying healthier, longer.
Depending on the severity of your COPD, your doctor has a variety of treatment options available. This would include medications such as bronchodilators and steroids, often aided with oxygen therapy. For some individuals with COPD surgery or a lung transplant may be an option. Working closely with your primary care physician and a pulmonologist will help find the best treatment for you.
Cardio-pulmonary rehab is a program that helps improve the well-being of people who have chronic breathing problems. It may include an exercise program, disease management training, and nutritional and psychological counseling. The program’s goal is to help you stay active and carry out your daily activities. Los Alamos Medical Center offers a cardio-rehab program.
While COPD symptoms usually worsen slowly over time, they can quickly take a turn for the worse. Any lung infection, such as a cold or the flu can cause severe symptoms to quickly appear. Breathing can be very difficult, your chest may tighten, and frequent bouts of coughing.
If your symptoms suddenly worsen, call your physician right away. They may be able to prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection as well as other medications to help you breathe.